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Promoting Reasonable Expectations: Aligning Student and Institutional Views of the College Experience

reviewed by Case Willoughby - 2006

coverTitle: Promoting Reasonable Expectations: Aligning Student and Institutional Views of the College Experience
Author(s): Thomas E. Miller, Barbara E. Bender, John H. Schuh
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787976245, Pages: 288, Year: 2005
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Libraries overflow with research focused on student learning, retention, development, and success, but this book takes an important step back to ask the overlooked question: what do students and other stakeholders expect from higher education?  If student expectations are not known, then how can they be met?  What effect might unreasonable expectations have on student retention?  This edited book includes chapters that provide illumination into the psychological aspects of expectations, results of in-depth research on student expectations, discussions of other stakeholders’ expectations, and wisdom from leaders in higher education.  The content of each chapter reveals another facet of the truly complex issue of expectations.

In the first chapter, Thomas Miller persuasively argues that understanding student expectations is a responsibility of institutions of higher education.  Miller also comments that the majority of available research centers on traditional-aged undergraduates living on campus, although other populations do receive some attention as well.  The introductory chapter reviews the contents and will be useful in framing the entire volume and in helping the hurried researcher who will to skip to specific chapters of interest.  

In chapter two, author Jeffrey Howard summarizes psychological research and theory related to expectations, focusing on late adolescence.  Howard notes that “expectations are based on our best understanding of our past experiences” (p. 12) and cautions the reader that “when our past experiences, our cognitive and emotional resources, and our self-perceived abilities seem to be inadequate for success, anxiety and stress reactions are inevitable” (p. 11).  Adolescence is a period of newfound cognitive complexity, a quest for identity, and a time in which idealistic expectations may turn to cynicism if those expectations are not met.  Howard concludes that students need to adapt quickly to avoid frustration, but that universities must also work to understand student expectations.

Chapters, three through eight draw on research to discuss student expectations on a variety of topics.  In chapter three, George Kuh, Robert Gonyea, and Julie Williams use information from the databases derived from sister instruments, the College Student Expectations Questionnaire (CSXQ) and the College Student Experiences Questionnaire (CSEQ), to consider primarily academic issues.  A detailed statistical discussion of the methodology and results is followed by recommendations to take advantage of the findings.  This chapter will prove daunting to the statistically disinclined, but it provides information regarding these instruments.

Larry Moneta and George Kuh consider student expectations for the campus environment in the fourth chapter.  What students want in their campus environment frequently differs from what colleges focus on.  For example, student affairs educators strive to provide meaningful, educational opportunities in residence halls. However, students base their preferences more on room size, internet access, and other amenities.  Such dissonance exists in other aspects, such as diversity, parental involvement, and student-faculty contact.  The authors caution that in managing this dissonance, campuses “must address but not accede to student expectations and preferences that are counter to the institution’s academic purposes” (p. 79).

Perhaps the central message of the fifth chapter, is that institutions have a responsibility not only to assess and understand student expectations, but to take part in shaping them.  Authors Frank Ardaiolo, Barbara Bender and Gregory Roberts discuss the gap between student expectations and reality in campus services.  From there they remind the reader that “when describing our institutional missions and the services we provide, our primary concern must be to do so with accuracy and integrity” (p. 139).  

As John Schuh and Leah Ewing Ross point out in chapter six, public perceptions are that college costs are skyrocketing.  This expectation, however, fails to take into account critical nuances, including the difference between college “sticker price” (published tuition and fees) and actual price that varies by student depending upon financial aid awards.  Potential students and their families should actively investigate these issues.

Student persistence and degree attainment are the center of Thomas Miller’s chapter seven.  Not surprisingly, the vast majority of students who enter higher education expect to graduate.  Actual graduation rates, however, show that only 43% finish at their original institution within six years.  Both student and institutional factors are likely to impact retention.  Difficulty reconciling competing expectations  (e.g. to outside employment, to unrealistic career goals) with college requirements is incorporated into student factors.  Institutions “should intervene with students who display those characteristics and expectations and try to modify the circumstances to give the students a better chance of persisting” (p. 139).

In chapter eight authors Susan Komives and Elizabeth Nuss focus on the experience after graduation and the long-term effects of college.  Using Hamrick, Evans and Schuh’s (2002) taxonomy of college outcomes (educated persons; skilled workers; life skills managers; self-aware and interpersonally sensitive individuals; democratic citizens) as a framework, the authors review a breadth of research to describe student expectations, actual experience, and the variance between the two.  The chapter concludes with a specific list of recommendations for research and practice.

Differences in student expectations depending on student demographics are the topic of the ninth chapter.  Gwendolyn Dungy, Patricia Rissmeyer and Gregory Roberts provide insightful analysis of differences in expectations based on race/ethnicity, age, gender and other variables.

Wilma Henry, Penelope Wills, and Harold Nixon take the complementary vantage point in the tenth chapter, as they review the differences in student expectations based on the institutional type.  They contrast two-year and four-colleges, public and private institutions, and historically black colleges and universities with other schools.  The findings reveal differences that educators and prospective students will find important.

Chapter eleven points out the multiple, often contradictory, expectations held by various stakeholders in higher education.  The authors, Barbara Bender, John Wesley Lowery, and John Schuh, include students, families, political entities, donors, and organizations that employ graduates in a long list of stakeholders.  With the attendant concerns of serving so many divergent groups, the authors focus on the need of public and independent institutions to “’make the case’ regarding the purposes of their institutions and how they work to achieve their missions” (p. 218).

The penultimate chapter, authored by Thomas Miller and Barbara Bender, provides a forum for several leaders in higher education to respond to the text. American Association of Colleges and Universities President Carol Schnieder adds a particularly thoughtful piece, contending that higher education must consider expanding student expectations, not merely responding to them, as part of its role.

In the final chapter, Thomas Miller effectively summarizes many of the key issues and perspectives of the volume.  He leaves the reader to consider the role higher education must play in understanding expectations, their sources, and the importance of taking an active role in promoting its mission and following through on its promises.

This book offers a strong framework for considering the nature of expectations of higher education, and why these expectations must continue to be examined.  The research presented provides confirmation of some things long suspected, but alternately surprises the reader with unanticipated findings that force a reexamination of assumptions.  This underscores the need for continued, solid research on expectations.

How to use this information is also at question. Rather than simply respond to the whims of market and political forces, higher education must remain true to its educational mission while also meeting realistic expectations of constituents.  It should be instructive that some of the most successful institutions are historically black colleges and universities.  The authors posit that the clearly communicated mission and purpose of HBCU’s may be a primary factor in that success.

With college costs and a consumer orientation both on the rise, scrutiny by all of higher education’s stakeholders is sure to increase.  This book effectively argues that higher education must make its voice clear and compelling, relying on sound research but speaking in comprehensible ways, or its mission might be lost to unreasonable expectations.


Hamrick, F. A., Evans, J. J., and Schuh, J.H. (2002).  Foundations of student affairs practice:  How philosophy, theory and research strengthen educational outcomes.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 59-62
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12067, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 5:57:11 AM

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About the Author
  • Case Willoughby
    Hostos Community College
    E-mail Author
    CASE WILLOUGHBY, Ed.D. is the Director of Academic Achievement at Hostos Community College and a former Class Dean at Columbia University. He holds a doctorate of education in higher education from Teachers College, Columbia University. His publications include entries in the encyclopedia Higher Education in the United States. Additionally, he has presented widely in national student personnel and higher education conferences on topics including organization change, multicultural education, and student development.
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