By Lois J. Gray
Ernest “Ernie” Pascarella’s office walls in the Lindquist Center are lined with awards.
These academic accolades are a testament to Pascarella’s profound impact on scholarship in higher education over his entire career.
While he’s proud of all of these awards, the ones Pascarella is most proud of didn’t result from his scholarship.
Nothing comes close to being as meaningful as the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts he received during the Vietnam War when he served as a platoon leader, rifle-company commander, and first lieutenant with the First Marine Division in Vietnam during 1967-68.
“It is the most important thing I’ve ever done,” Pascarella says. “It had a huge, direct impact on my life. Of all the things I’ve ever done, being a Marine in Vietnam was the defining experience of my life.”
Still, he acknowledges the influence he’s had on the field of higher education, which has shaped hundreds of careers and inspired other scholars. In fact, Pascarella is one of the most cited scholars in higher education research (over 61,900 citations in Google Scholar) and his work has been cited in five U.S. Supreme Court cases.
Pascarella is an accomplished and prolific scholar, who holds the distinguished Mary Louise Petersen Chair in Higher Education. He has been a professor in the Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) program in the Department of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies since 1997 when he first joined the college under then-dean Steve Yussen.
Yussen, now a faculty member at the University of Minnesota, says he was honored to hire Pascarella as the inaugural Petersen Chair of Higher Education.
“In addition to his impressive scholarship on the outcomes of completing college, his engaging style of teaching, and his generous way of collaborating with others, he's a really nice person,” Yussen says. “Over the years, he's contributed enormously to elevating the work of the higher education program, internally and externally, in all the ways we'd hoped he would and more, when we hired him a quarter of a century ago.”
Many students and faculty alike joke that they know where they are in the Lindquist Center when they see Pascarella’s iconic John Belushi poster on his office door – a recognizable landmark to several generations of scholars and students.
Pascarella began his career at the UI College of Education in 1997. He focused his research and writing on the impact of college on students, authoring almost 300 journal articles on this topic. He has also served on an estimated 50 dissertation committees and has mentored dozens of students, inspiring many of them to become renowned scholars in their own right.
One of those former students is Tricia Seifert (Ph.D. ‘06), now a faculty member at Montana State University, who has known Pascarella since 2003 when she applied to the Ph.D. program.
Seifert says that Pascarella welcomed her to his research team, not just as a graduate student, but as a colleague.
“This was evidenced by the very first task he assigned to me, writing the literature review about liberal arts education for a forthcoming monograph,” Seifert says. “I was gob smacked by the opportunity and more so that he would entrust a first-year doctoral student with such responsibility. He knew what it meant to hold high expectations for students; quite simply, he knew we would rise to meet, and do everything in our power, and exceed them.”
One of Pascarella’s career highlights was when he and co-author Patrick T. Terenzini published the landmark book, “How College Affects Students” in 1991, a synthesis of more than 2,600 studies on the impact of college. The book received the 1991 Research Achievement Award from the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) and was identified as one of the 100 most important and influential books on higher education written in the 20thcentury.
An updated volume was published in 2005, synthesizing 2,400 additional studies on college impact, and a third version appeared in 2016.
Another accomplishment of which Pascarella is particularly proud was when he and former UI faculty member Elizabeth Whitt created the Center for Research on Undergraduate Education (CRUE) in 2005 and served as its first co-directors.
The center's mission is to implement and disseminate research and scholarship which foster understanding of effective undergraduate education. The vast body of work produced by faculty affiliated with the center is regularly published in leading peer-reviewed journals and presented at national conferences.
“CRUE is highly successful and does some damn good research,” Pascarella says.
The foundational expertise that CRUE provides has also assisted many of the college’s alumni in developing prominent careers as scholars, instructors, and administrators.
Pascarella is particularly pleased to pass the torch of the Mary Louise Petersen Chair in Higher Education after he retires to professor Nick Bowman, the current CRUE director, who was recently selected as the new named chair.
“He’s going to take CRUE places that I couldn’t,” Pascarella says. “He was a great hire.”
Pascarella has also been the recipient of numerous national and university awards. During 1989-90, he served as the president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), and in 2003, he received the ASHE Howard R. Bowen Distinguished Career Award.
He is also proud of being a recipient of a Hawkeye Distinguished Veterans Award in 2015, and was honored when Nicholas and Kay Colangelo created the Ernie T. Pascarella Military Veteran Promise Award to support scholarships for student veterans.
In 2010, Pascarella was identified as the second most-cited scholar in the “core journals” in higher education, and the 1991 book, “How College Affects Students,” was identified as the single most cited book.
"Ernie is the single most-cited scholar in the field of higher education, and that says a great deal about the sheer size of the impact of his scholarly work on the field of higher education,” says faculty emeritus and former colleague Michael Paulsen.
Yet, Paulsen says Pascarella was always humble and hard working with a great sense of humor.
“Yes, he is a big man – both literally and figuratively – but he has an even bigger heart. In many ways, he is a plainspoken and ordinary man, who loves to talk about football, and enjoys joking around,” Paulsen says. “His familiar sense of humor often helps keep faculty meetings from getting too serious. He is always very accessible to students and colleagues alike, making others quickly feel comfortable with him. He has a quick wit, a charming personality, and he is remarkably generous with his time, his support, as well as his scholarship and knowledge.”
Long-time colleague and friend Terenzini agrees. The two met while students at Syracuse University working on a study on student attrition.
“Although not well-acquainted at that point, we got along, and a joint dropout study seemed like a good idea,” Terenzini says. “That started everything, and nearly 50 years later, we’re still talking to each other. Along the way, we became fast colleagues and best friends.”
Pascarella first got interested in higher education as a career when he took a course at Syracuse University called “The Impact of College on Students.”
“This course was the first time I’d seen anybody concerned about what happens at college,” Pascarella says. “Everybody’s concerned about getting in and where you get in, but they don’t seem to be all that concerned about what happens once you get in. That strikes me as being pretty important, and so I’ve spent my whole career doing that.”
He adds, “I’m not a public intellectual. I’m not a great speaker, I’m not really an educator. I’m a social scientist who works on the effects of college. That’s it. I’ve never done anything else.”
Pascarella says he’s witnessed changes in the field during his career.
“I suspect the research has gotten more rigorous over time, and there have been a consistent set of benefits that people take away from their education, not just financial benefits,” Pascarella says.
Those benefits include gaining increased critical thinking skills, being more likely to vote, and having better health habits, just to mention three.
Pascarella says it’s not one moment that stands out to him in his distinguished tenure. “It’s like a slowly-building fire, but I think, seeing my work cited a lot gives me great satisfaction.”
Although Pascarella officially retires July 1 of this year, he plans to continue work with some of his graduate students in his faculty emeritus role as they publish research together.
But there are hobbies Pascarella hopes to pursue. “I’ve always wanted to have a nice model railroad. I’ve always been enthralled by trains. I might get into model railroading or start a life of crime,” he jokes.
Despite conversations about the value and cost of higher education, Pascarella says the research he and others have done empirically shows how college improves lives.
“It is a good value,” Pascarella says, citing the development of citizenship, better health, critical thinking skills, creativity, and learning to work in teams with diverse people.
He adds, “One of the best predictors of health is education, for two reasons. One, you learn about it, and two, you’re more likely to get a job that has health insurance.”
As Pascarella nears his formal retirement, he says there’s no other place he would have wanted to spend so much of his career.
“I have found that the University of Iowa is a gem on the prairie, “Pascarella says. “It is a great place. This has been a terrific academic home.”