Student Subcultures

Excerpted from: Strange, C.C. and Banning, J.H. Educating by Design: Creating Campus Learning Environments that Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.

In recent decades, a number of researchers have examined the nature of environments attributed to various human aggregates on college and university campuses. Employing a taxonomic or typological language that implicitly sorts students into a variety of discrete categories or boxes, Clark and Trow (1966) observed that students share certain broad patterns of student orientation toward college which tend to give meaning to the informed relations among students. They described four subcultures on college campuses, which result from combinations of two dimensions assessing the extent to which students identify with ideas and identify with their institution. The interaction of these two dimensions suggests the distinctive character of each subculture; the Academic, the Nonconformist, the Collegiate, and the Vocational student.


Orientations of Four Student Subcultures

Involved with ideas

                                                                         Much                         Little

                                                       Much     Academic                 Collegiate
                    Identify with
                    Their College
                                                       Little      Nonconformist         Vocational


According to Clark and Trow, the typical character of an institution is partially the function of the dominance of one or more of these subcultures and an understanding of each is important for discerning their collective influence on campus environments.

The Academic subculture, identifying as much with ideas as with the institution, is for the most part composed of serious students who work hard, achieve high grades, and participate in campus life. They are seriously involved in their coursework; and they identify themselves with their college and faculty. They perceive the school as an institution that supports intellectual values and opportunities for learning. Many of these students go on to graduate and professional schools, placing a premium on the intellectual life of the institution, particularly its libraries, laboratories, and seminar rooms.

Sharing this involvement with ideas are the Nonconformists . Different from Academics, however, the Nonconformists maintain a critical detachment from the college they attend and its faculty, and have a generalized hostility to the administration. In sum, this subculture seems to value and reward individualistic styles, concern for personal identity and self-awareness, and, frequently contempt for organized society.

In contrast, the Collegiate subculture tends to be loyal to their college but indifferent, if not resistant, to serious intellectual demands. They place at a premium campus social life, extracurricular activities, athletics, living group functions, and intimate friendships. Count on them to attend the homecoming parade and game but not the department discussion group.

Last is the Vocational subculture. These students care little about ideas or involvement in the institution. For Vocational students a college education is off-the-job training leading to a diploma and a better job than they could otherwise obtain. Ideas, scholarship, social life, and extracurricular activities are not particularly valued.

Although specific descriptions of these subcultures may be dated somewhat, their relevance for examining today’s college students seems intact. Faculty and administrators readily recognize the serious student, the Academic, as one who places priority on studies and enjoys a good academic challenge. Student affairs administrators continue to rely on the leadership of the Collegiate student, who readily gets involved in campus opportunities. The Vocational student, who cuts a narrow path through the college experience, focusing on only those course that are most marketable to a particular job, is still prevalent on most campuses. Even the Nonconformists is visible among students who, today, might be seen convening in small groups on the campus lawn dressed in the latest counterculture attire listening to alternative rock.

Furthermore, it is easy to imagine how the dominance of one or more of these subcultures on campus might shape institutional image and culture. Where would an Oberlin or Antioch College be without the presence of a dominant Nonconformist subculture? Could Williams College or Princeton survive in its present state without a strong Academic subculture? Could the rich traditions of residence life, campus activities, Greek letter organizations, and intercollegiate athletics survive at Indiana University without a significant Collegiate subculture?

At the same time, the Vocational subculture among students today, both traditional and nontraditional age, brings a strong consumer ethic to campus, demanding nothing less than a practical and applicable education leading to a good paying job. In the same respect, the experience of community and technical college educators becomes clear when one realizes the dominance of Vocational types and the absence of Collegiates at such institutions. These examples illustrate the character of the campus culture, which supports or detracts from the institution’s mission, is partially a function of the types of students who enrolled who collectively create a human aggregate environment on campus.


Clark, B. & Trow, M. (1966). The organizational context. In T. Newcomb & E. Wilson (Eds.) College Peer Groups: Problems and Prospects for Research (pp. 19-70). Chicago: Aldine.

Walsh, W.B. (1973). Theories of Person-environment Interaction: Implications for the College Student. Iowa City: American College Testing Program.