Eyebrows may go up at the news that a college education and an improved moral compass go hand in hand -given the news of alcohol-related deaths and binge drinking on campuses in recent years.
But the bulk of research shows that the undergraduate years can and usually do instill in students vastly improved moral reasoning.
"The major impact of college is to foster the increased use of principled reasoning in judging moral issues," Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini write in their 1991 book: "How College Affects Students" (Jossey-Bass)
That increase, the authors say, appears "to be linked systematically and perhaps causally to a range of principled behaviors, including resisting cheating, social activism, keeping contractual promises, and helping those in need."
Proof is in the studies
Dr. Pascarella, a University of Iowa professor of education, says in a phone interview that there have been 250 to 300 studies on the subject of the moral impact of college on students in the past 25 years. Most utilize two different types of well-established written test involving moral dilemmas. And most tests given before and after college show a positive impact.
Studies are continuing as interest in the subject grows. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini are updating their book to include at least 50 newer studies.
"There's a renewed interest in the whole idea that education in this country does more than just prepare people for jobs," Pascarella says. "The original idea was to change a person, so that they fundamentally come out different - the notion that education makes a good person and a good person acts morally."
A sense of 'personal honor'
Rene Theriault is a case in point. When he headed off to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville as a freshman, Mr. Theriault expected to be his own boss, do his own laundry, schedule himself, and work hard.
But the last thing he expected was an extended four-year course in character education - which is precisely what he got.
Theriault, who graduated from UVA last month, says the university - which has the nation's oldest student-run honor code - instilled in him a sense of "personal honor" that was one of the major lessons of his undergraduate years. He noted the difference in himself in an interview prior to his graduation recently.
"It gave me a base line from which to live my life," he says.