Academic journal article College Student Journal

High Expectations for Higher Education? Perceptions of College and Experiences of Stress Prior to and through the College Career

Academic journal article College Student Journal

High Expectations for Higher Education? Perceptions of College and Experiences of Stress Prior to and through the College Career

Article excerpt

Increasing numbers of students are experiencing difficulty adjusting to college. Violated expectations of college may increase the stress experienced across the college careen Therefore, 36 college students were assessed prior to matriculation, during the first year and during the senior year. Expectations and experiences of academics, social life, family involvement, and satisfaction with the chosen college were compared. Students' experiences generally did not differ from their expectations, except regarding increased involvement with family. Violated expectations of academic demands predicted stress during the first and senior years. Violated expectations regarding social experiences predicted stress in the vulnerable first year.


Going to college represents a significant developmental milestone, requiring students to adjust to the academic challenges, increased levels of independence, separation from friends and family, and new role expectations. This transition can be a source of stress for many individuals, some of whom find the collegiate experience fails to meet their expectations (Stem, 1966; Tinto, 1987; Holmbeck & Wandrei, 1993; Gerdes & Mallinckrodt, 1994; Rickinson & Rutherford, 1996). Difficulty adjusting to the demands of college can lead to early withdrawal. Two decades ago, some estimates suggested 30-40% of college students could be expected to drop out before earning a degree (Tinto, 1987; Levitz & Noel, 1989). More recent data indicate that this number is increasing. Federal data show that 46% of students entering four-year colleges in 1997 had failed to earn a degree six years later (AP, 2005). In addition, reported stress levels of college students have increased (Altschuler, 2000). The number of first year students who report feeling 'overwhelmed' has almost doubled and some colleges are reporting that use of counseling and psychological services has gone up by one third (Shatkin, 2007).

One potential source of stress that has been considered is the unrealistic or unrealized expectations of first year college students. Failing to meet their somewhat idealistic expectations has been associated with academic ambivalence, failure, and early withdrawal from college (Baker, McNeil, & Siryk, 1985; Jackson, Pancer, Pratt, & Hunsberger, 2000). Research in this area has focused largely on students' academic expectations (e.g., courses, level of preparation) and academic outcomes (e.g., failure, dropout). This longitudinal study aims to expand this research by comparing students' expectations and experiences of college in broader domains and examining the relationship between violated expectations and stress. Students' expectations prior to matriculation and their perceptions during the first and fourth years were compared. Students' perceptions of academics, social life, relationships with parents, and satisfaction with their chosen college were assessed.

First Year Myth

Many students have unrealistically optimistic expectations of college, identified by Stern as the Freshman Myth (1966). These idealistic expectations can rarely be met. Students who show higher discrepancies between expectations and actual experiences may become disillusioned and be more vulnerable to drop out (e.g., Baker, et al., 1985; Gerdes & Mallinckrodt, 1994). However, only about one third of the sample in a more recent study were found to have overly optimistic expectations (Jackson, et al., 2000). The First Year Myth may be less dramatic now as students have multiple sources of information about college life and the specific colleges they have chosen to attend. For example, it is not uncommon for students to visit colleges and speak with current students about their experiences. However, even if the difference between expectation and experience is small, it can have a meaningful impact on stress levels in an already vulnerable population. Also, the accuracy of students' expectations is likely to differ across domain. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.