Research in Higher Education

, Volume 57, Issue 5, pp 519–543 | Cite as

Turning the Question Around: Do Colleges Fail to Meet Students’ Expectations?

  • James E. Rosenbaum
  • Kelly Iwanaga BeckerEmail author
  • Kennan A. Cepa
  • Claudia E. Zapata-Gietl


Research often focuses on how students fail to meet college expectations, but it rarely asks how colleges fail to meet students’ expectations. This study examines students’ expectations of college and their institutional confidence—their level of certainty that college will meet their expectations. Drawing on 65 pilot interviews and a survey of 757 students in eight community colleges and two private occupational colleges, we find that students have three expectations about college. However, students do not express confidence that college will meet these expectations. Students expect college to provide: (1) dependable progress to credentials, (2) relevant courses, and (3) job contacts. Factor analyses confirm that ten survey items load onto the three components of institutional confidence expressed in the interviews. Using structural equation modeling, we investigate how institutional confidence varies by college program and its relationship to students’ overall college evaluations. Within 2-year colleges, we find that students in two occupational programs express more confidence that college provides relevant courses and employer contacts than students in BA transfer programs. Further, we find that students’ institutional confidence that college provides relevant courses mediates much of the relationship between college program and students’ overall college evaluation. We speculate about ways college programs may improve students’ institutional confidence and their evaluation of college.


Institutional confidence Community colleges For-profit higher education Structure Student outcomes 


  1. Adelman, C. (2003). Principal indicators of student academic histories in post-secondary education, 1970–2000. Washington, DC: Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.Google Scholar
  2. Aldemir, C., & Gulcan, Y. (2004). Student satisfaction in higher education. Higher Educational Management and Policy, 16, 109–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Associates, Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., & Whitt, E. J. (2005). Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  4. Bailey, T., Jenkins, D., & Leinbach, T. (2005). Community college low-income and minority student completion study: Descriptive statistics from the 1992 high school cohort. New York: Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.Google Scholar
  5. Bailey, T., Jeong, D. W., & Cho, S. W. (2010). Referral, enrollment, and completion in developmental education sequences in community colleges. Economics of Education Review, 29, 255–270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bank, B., Biddle, B., & Slavings, R. (1992). What do students want? Expectations and undergraduate persistence. Sociological Quarterly, 33(3), 321–335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bickerstaff, S., Barragan, M., & Rucks-Ahidiana, Z. (2012). “I came in unsure of everything”: Community college student shifts in confidence. New York: Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.Google Scholar
  8. Bills, D. (1992). A survey of employer surveys: What we know about labor markets from talking with bosses. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 11, 3–31.Google Scholar
  9. Bishop, J. H. (1989). Why the apathy in American high schools? Educational Researcher, 18(1), 6–10.Google Scholar
  10. Bollen, K. A., Harden, J. J., Ray, S., & Zavisca, J. (2014). BIC and alternative Bayesian information criteria in the selection of structural equation models. Structural Equation Modeling: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 21(1), 1–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Borden, V. M. H. (1995). Segmenting student markets with a student satisfaction and priorities. Research in Higher Education, 36(1), 73–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Braxton, J. M., Sullivan, A. S., & Johnson, R. M. (1997). Appraising Tinto’s theory of college student departure. In J. C. Smart (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research. New York: Agathon Press.Google Scholar
  13. Braxton, J. M., Vesper, N., & Hossler, D. (1995). Expectations for college and student persistence. Research in Higher Education, 36(5), 595–612.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Brint, S. (2003). Few remaining dreams: Community colleges since 1985. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 586, 16–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Bryk, A. S., Lee, V. E., & Holland, P. B. (1993). Catholic schools and the common good. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Carnevale, A. P., Rose, S. J., & Hanson, A. R. (2012). Certificates: Gateway to gainful employment and college degrees. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.Google Scholar
  17. Cohen, A. M., & Brawer, F. B. (2008). The American community college (5th ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.Google Scholar
  18. Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (2007). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (3rd ed.). New York: Sage Publications Inc.Google Scholar
  19. Deil-Amen, R. (2011). Socio-academic integrative moments: rethinking academic and social integration among two-year college students in career-related programs. The Journal of Higher Education, 82(1), 54–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Deming, D. J., Goldin, C., & Katz, L. F. (2012). The for-profit postsecondary school sector: Nimble critters or agile predators? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 26(1), 139–164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Dougherty, K. J. (1994). The contradictory college: The conflicting origins, impacts, and futures of the community college. New York, NY: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
  22. Elliot, K., & Healy, M. (2001). Key factors influencing student satisfaction related to recruitment and retention. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, 10, 1–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Grubb, W. N. (1997). The returns to education in the sub-baccalaureate labor market, 1984–1990. Economics of Education Review, 16(3), 231–245.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hagan, J. (1991). Destiny and drift: Subcultural preferences, status attainments and the risks and rewards of youth. American Sociological Review, 56, 567–582.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hearn, J. C. (1987). Impacts of undergraduate experiences on aspirations and plans for graduate and professional education. Research in Higher Education, 27(2), 119–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Helland, P. A., Stallings, H. J., & Braxton, J. M. (2002). The fulfillment of expectations for college and student departure decisions. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory and Practice, 3(4), 381–396.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hoachlander, G., Sikora, A. C., & Horn, L. (2003). Community college students: Goals, academic preparation, and outcomes. Education Statistics Quarterly, 5(2), 121–128.Google Scholar
  28. Horn, L. (1999). Stopouts or stayouts? Undergraduates who leave college in their first year. Washington, DC: Department of Education, NCES 1999-087.Google Scholar
  29. Hu, L., & Bentler, P. M. (1999). Cutoff criteria for fit indexes in covariance structure analysis: Conventional criteria versus new alternatives. Structural Equation Modeling: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 6(1), 1–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Jackson, L., Pancer, S., Ptratt, M., & Hunsberger, B. (2000). Great expectation: The relation between expectancies and adjustment during the transition to university. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30(10), 2100–2125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kerckhoff, A. C., & Bell, L. (1998). Hidden capital: Vocational credentials and attainment in the United States. Sociology of Education, 71(2), 152–174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Kirst, M. W., & Bracco, K. R. (2004). Bridging the great divide: How the K-12 and postsecondary split hurts students, and what can be done about it. In M. W. Kirst & A. Venezia (Eds.), From high school to college: Improving opportunities for success in postsecondary education (pp. 1–30). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  33. Kuh, G. D., Schuh, J. H., Whitt, E. J., Andreas, R. E., Lyons, J. W., Strange, C. C., et al. (1991). Involving colleges: Successful approaches to fostering student learning and development outside the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  34. Larose, S., & Boivin, M. (1998). Attachment of parents, social support expectations, and socioemotional adjustment during the high school-college transition. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 8(1), 1–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Lee, V., & Burkam, D. T. (2003). Dropping out of high school: The role of school organization and structure. American Educational Research Journal, 40(2), 353–393.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Low, L. (2000). Are college students satisfied? A national analysis of changing expectations. Indianapolis, IN: USA Group, Inc., New Agenda Series.Google Scholar
  37. Machado, M. L., Brites, R., Magalhaes, A., Brites, R., & Sá, M. J. (2011). Satisfaction with higher education: Critical data for student development. European Journal of Education, 46(3), 415–432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Metz, M. (1978). Classrooms and corridors. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  39. Miller, T. E., Bender, B. E., Schuh, J. H., & Associates. (2005). Promoting reasonable expectations: Aligning student and institutional views of the college experience. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  40. Mortimer, J. T., & Krueger, H. (2000). Transition from school to work in the United States and Germany: Formal pathways matter. In M. T. Hallinan (Ed.), Handbook of the sociology of education (pp. 475–499). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.Google Scholar
  41. National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). Digest of education statistics 2012. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.Google Scholar
  42. Navarro, M., Iglesias, M., & Torres, P. (2005). A new management element for universities: Satisfaction with the offered courses. International Journal of Educational Management, 19, 505–526.Google Scholar
  43. Pallas, A. M. (2000). The effects of schooling on individual lives. In M. T. Hallinan (Ed.), Handbook of the sociology of education. New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.Google Scholar
  44. Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (2005). How college affects students (Vol. 2). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  45. Rosenbaum, J. E., Ahearn, C., & Rosenbaum, J. (2014). The new forgotten half and research directions to support them. Paper presented to the Board of Trustees of the W. T. Grant Foundation, June 19, 2014, New York, NY.Google Scholar
  46. Rosenbaum, J. E., Deil-Amen, R., & Person, A. E. (2006). After admission: From college access to college success. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation Press.Google Scholar
  47. Rosseel, Y. (2012). lavaan: An R package for structural equation modeling. Journal of Statistical Software, 48(2), 1–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Shugart, S., & Romano, J. (2008). Focus on the front door of the college. In P. Schuetz & J. Barr (Eds.), New directions for community college (Vol. 144, pp. 29–40). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  49. Smith, J. S., & Wertlieb, E. C. (2005). Do first-year college students’ expectations align with their first-year experiences? Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 42(2), 299–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Stephan, J. L., Rosenbaum, J. E., & Person, A. E. (2009). Stratification in college entry and completion. Social Science Research, 38, 572–593.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Stinchcombe, A. L. (1964). Rebellion in a high school. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.Google Scholar
  52. Stone, J. R., & Lewis, M. V. (2012). College and career ready in the 21st century. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.Google Scholar
  53. Suhre, J. M., Jansen, E., & Harskamp, E. G. (2007). Impact of degree program satisfaction on the persistence of college students. Higher Education, 54, 207–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  55. Titus, M. A. (2006). Understanding college degree completion of students with low socioeconomic status: The influence of the institutional financial context. Research in Higher Education, 47(4), 371–398.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Trow, M. (1973). Problems in the transition from elite to mass higher education. Berkeley, CA: Carnegie Commission on Higher Education.Google Scholar
  57. VanNoy, M., Weiss, M. J., Jenkins, D., Barnett, E. A., & Wachen, J. (2012). Structure in community college career-technical programs: A qualitative analysis. New York, NY: Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.Google Scholar
  58. Wiers-Jensen, J., Stensaker, B., & Grogaard, J. (2002). Student satisfaction: Towards an empirical deconstruction of the concept. Quality in Higher Education, 8, 183–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Wyner, J. S. (2014). What excellent community colleges do: Preparing all students for success. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • James E. Rosenbaum
    • 1
  • Kelly Iwanaga Becker
    • 2
    Email author
  • Kennan A. Cepa
    • 3
  • Claudia E. Zapata-Gietl
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute for Policy ResearchNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA
  2. 2.Student Affairs AssessmentNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA
  3. 3.University of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA

Personalised recommendations