Promoting Reasonable Expectations: Aligning
Student and Institutional Views of the College Experience
By Thomas E. Miller, Barbara E. Bender, John H. Schuh & Associates
Department of Anthropology
California State University, Northridge
How can the quality of higher education be accurately assessed? Promoting Reasonable Expectations: Aligning Student and Institutional Views of the College Experience, by Thomas Miller, Barbara Bender, John Schuh and associates, finds traditional tools and perspectives of institutional assessment limiting because they exclude an in-depth understanding of the knowledge and expectations that students bring to campus. The authors suggest that students expect things that colleges cannot always provide. They expect to receive good grades although they don’t come to class or participate. They expect access to instructors, which is not always possible. They expect living arrangements which may not be within the mission or resources of the college. Students may not fully benefit from higher education institutions and may even underutilize the resources that are provided. The mismatch raises questions about the effectiveness of these institutions, the role of higher education in society, and the cultural dynamics of the “new millennial” generation.
Promoting Reasonable Expectations makes an important contribution to studies of higher education, among which there are very few that specifically examine students’ expectations. In this volume, three articles are original analyses of expectations based on the College Student Expectations Questionnaire and College Student Experiences Questionnaire created at Indiana University (see George Kuh, Robert Gonyea and Julie Williams; Larry Moneta and George Kuh; Gwendolyn Dungy, Patricia Rissmeyer and George Roberts).
Nine articles are based on secondary sources, with Thomas Miller’s “Student Persistence and Degree Attainment” particularly useful for its comprehensive overview of the largest data sets and most important reports that researchers should consult. Nearly every chapter makes suggestions for narrowing the gap between students’ and institutions’ expectations. Promoting Reasonable Expectations is written for presidents, student affairs professionals, and administrators, as well as faculty interested in the “broad picture” of university issues beyond one’s classroom and department.
Justifications for examining student expectations are outlined in “What Students Expect from College and What They Get” (Kuh, Gonyea and Williams) and “Why Should We Care About Student Expectations?” (Jeffrey Howard). According to Kuh, Gonyea and Williams, students’ expectations mediate learning in and out of the classroom, shaping their decisions about how to use time and what activities to get involved in. According to Howard, students expect their school to honor promises that are made in brochures, codes of conduct, course syllabi, etc. Thus, the perception of broken “contracts” also impacts students’ outlook and performance in college (24-28).
Once students begin questioning their beliefs about the purpose of college in life, the value of training for a specific career, their future ability to make money, their commitment to upholding their part in the contract begins to change. They may begin to believe that the curriculum is not challenging enough, that faculty members are unapproachable, or that other support systems are not meeting their needs.
The greatest strength of Promoting Reasonable Expectations is its portrayal of the many factors that shape students’ expectations, presented from a variety of perspectives. The book discusses the influence on expectations of the psychological-social development of youth (Howard), campus services (Frank Ardaioloa, Barbara Bender and Gregory Roberts), the cost of education (John Schuh and Leah Ewing Ross), national politics (Barbara Bender, John Wesley Lowery and John Schuh), and aspirations for life after college (Susan Komives and Elizabeth Nuss).
What do we learn about students’ expectations? Kuh, Gonyea and Williams describe the role of college activities and the campus environment in students’ expectations. Among their many interesting findings are these:
- First-year students expect to study more, write more, and attend a wider range of cultural events than they actually do. At the end of the year, however, students report that coursework is not as intellectually challenging as they had initially thought (37); moreover, time spent preparing for class does not readily translate into better grades (58-61).
- More than other students, women and people of color expect to take part in a wide range of “educationally purposeful” activities (p.50).
- First-generation students, in particular, do not accurately estimate the nature of the campus environment and therefore encounter problems negotiating it (37).
- Peers mediate relationships between expectations and experience.
- A host of cognitive and psychological factors (e.g., ability, aspirations, motivations, positive orientation to college) also influence students’ expectations (51).
These findings demonstrate that analyzing student expectations is a complex endeavor. As one example, the authors are puzzled that more studying does not convert into learning gains (59). They speculate that partial causes may be first-year students’ inability to study efficiently, and academically well-prepared students’ spending little time to study initially. The researchers also find it intriguing that students with low expectations are able to predict their college experiences more accurately than others (60). Given that grade inflation has become a national trend, the authors wonder if faculty members and student affairs professionals actually do have low expectations of students.
Other authors explore the institutional role in creating student expectations. Wilma Henry, Penelope Wills and Harold Nixon compare two-year with four-year colleges, public with private institutions, and historically black colleges with other institutions, finding that expectations vary greatly. Students at two-year colleges are less likely to expect to complete degrees than students at four-year colleges (191-192). Students at private institutions have expectations of being involved in “college life” (e.g., joining organizations) (193-194). Students at historically black colleges tend to have expectations that are closely aligned with the school that they attend, and are reported to be more satisfied than others with their college experience and to persist until graduation (195). The authors suggest that institutions with a clear focus and identity have a greater chance of attracting students with reasonable and accurate expectations (200). Such an observation should motivate institutions to clarify their mission statements and to examine how clearly their institutional identity is communicated to the public.
Many of the articles discuss the large role of American consumer culture in shaping expectations. Moneta and Kuh note that universities provide a wide range of campus residences. Some students expect hotel-like accommodations and are dissatisfied when they encounter institutional housing structured to foster an academic community (74; Ardaiolo, Bender and Roberts, 92). Cell phones permit students to remain connected to their families (Moneta and Kuh, 74); however, they also allow parents to make their presence felt on campus. In the U.S., parent coalitions are becoming a leading voice demanding better “goods and services” (Ardaiolo, Bender and Roberts, 85).
Colleges and universities are increasingly commercialized, too. Health spas and hotel-like residential housing are indeed built in order to attract students (Moneta and Kuh, 74). A wide range of amenities is also offered at colleges and universities such that they have become “intellectual shopping malls” (Schwartz 2004, B6 as cited in Moneta and Kuh 69). Students are expected to “browse” the academic offerings and “try on for size” any number of extracurricular activities. In short, institutions’ marketing efforts themselves contribute to inflated expectations. In addition, they reinforce the leisure ground image of college and university campuses.
In sum, many of the authors recognize that the gap between students’ and institutions’ expectations may need to be addressed in domains that extend beyond the boundaries of higher education. Even so, what may be done at the level of colleges and universities to improve the situation?
Moneta and Kuh suggest more research to address students’ expectations. Promoting Reasonable Expectations has outlined a comprehensive list of factors whose qualities now need to be examined. Ethnographic research may be useful here. It may also offer a means to incorporate students’ voices into research. The final chapter of Promoting Reasonable Expectations is slightly ethnographic in that it presents the views and expressions of college presidents. However, this chapter would have been stronger had it conveyed the voices of the students who are the central subjects of its examination.
Moneta and Kuh also indicate that student affairs professionals can play a significant role in “managing” the campus environment so that students’ expectations are more closely aligned with institutions’ (80). Student affairs professionals help to create meaningful links between students and faculty members as well as between students and job markets. Student affairs professionals, however, need training in order to make these links more effective.
Both Miller and Bender, Lowery and Schuh argue that the process of aligning student and institutional expectations needs to begin early in the college or university experience. They suggest that peer advising programs will improve incoming students’ understanding of institutional expectations.
Overall, Promoting Reasonable Expectations convincingly demonstrates that aligning students’ expectations is a complex endeavor that entails mapping the characteristics, structures, and parameters of their perceptions. By exploring a broad range of political, economic and social contexts, this book goes beyond a research model that focuses narrowly on the student-institution relationship. When considering the dynamics that shape students’ responses to higher education and their expectations of it, such a model examines the interactions between students and the higher ed. institution (e.g., what students are doing in their classes, the activities that they participate in, their interactions with faculty). The book under review proposes drawing a broader boundary to explore economic, political and social influences on student expectations. As a collection, the articles propose a very holistic and anthropological approach. Perhaps they will lead the way to bringing a number of disciplines to bear on the questions, including my own field of anthropology.
The book is an excellent road map of initial questions and issues that will require our close attention as scholars and professionals seeking to strengthen the quality of higher education.
Posted October 12, 2006.
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or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2006 by Suzanne Scheld.