Assessing Student Perspectives on the Value of a College Education

Article excerpt

Abstract

The values students hold about college significantly impact how they approach their educational experience. This study, conducted at a small public university, presents a model for institutional leaders wishing to assess their students' expectations and values about the goals, purposes, and processes of higher education. Focus group discussions with students elicited themes regarding the value of various aspects of higher education, including campus climate, student participation in the learning process, and the goals of education. A survey was constructed from these themes and a gap analysis technique was used compare students' perceptions of an "ideal university" against their own experiences in higher education. Seven of the 36 items included in the student questionnaire were drawn verbatim from a comparable survey of academic values administered to faculty and administrators. Comparisons among these three groups on these items illustrate how different stakeholders may perceive quality of higher education in similar or different ways. This information can be valuable for decision-making at many stages of institutional planning including planning course offerings, academic calendars, special initiatives, and college orientation programs.

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As another cohort of students arrive on campus for their first year at college or return to college after a summer off, we might do well to ponder what dreams and hopes they bring with them for the year ahead. How do new and returning students think about the value of the educational experience that lies before them? In what ways do they value higher education and for what purposes? Most importantly, how do these expectations relate to the degree to which students choose to engage in academic assignments, class discussions, relationship with professors, and extra-curricular activities?

Since it is widely acknowledged that attitudes greatly influence behavior (Ajzen, 1987; Fazio & Roskos-Ewoldsen, 1994), it follows that the values and expectations that students hold regarding higher education will greatly impact how they approach their educational experience. Academic values influence students' selection of majors and electives, the amount and kind of effort they invest in academic activities as opposed to employment or other extracurricular activities, and how engaged they are in campus life. On the one hand, rising college enrollments would seem to indicate that students (and their parents) value higher education more than ever before. However, concurrent with increasing numbers of students enrolling in college is a narrowing and lowering of expectations these students hold for their college experience. Studies examining students' reasons for going to college have documented a trend away from seeing it as an opportunity for self-exploration or to develop a philosophy of life towards the more narrow view of college as solely a path to a better job and greater economic security (Astin, 1993; Chickering & Reisser, 1993), although this trend appears to be moderated somewhat by exposure to higher education (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991).

Interestingly, during the same period that college students seem to be growing more narrowly career focused in their approach to college, higher education institutions have undergone a process of both articulating and broadening the value of a post-secondary education in response to public demands for accountability in a time of escalating higher education costs. Institutional goals typically include broadly defined learning outcomes such as critical thinking, communication skills, civic responsibility, and a propensity for lifelong learning. Defining these outcomes is seen as the first step towards assessing the relative success of programs, which then leads to the next step of pedagogical and curricular modifications resulting in a continuous spiral of improving quality.

A career-oriented approach to college may not be dichotomous with the view of a comprehensive liberal education. …