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Assessing student perspectives on the value of a college education.


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.


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. It has been argued the traditional liberal education competencies are even more critical to success in today's workplace than the so-called specialized skills and knowledge taught in the major (Lynton, 1990) and at least one study has found that business executives agree (Hersh, 1997). Yet, recent studies have found that, as compared to students of past decades, students today are less interested in the traditional ideals of a liberal education (Finn, 1997; Hersh 1997), less informed about what these ideals are (Atkinson, Swanson, & Reardon, 1998; Higbee & Dwinell, 1997), and more likely to select applied majors (Cress & Sax, 1998).

The Values in Higher Education Project

To effectively engage students in the learning process, it is important for institutions to elicit the values and expectations students bring to their college experience, to understand how these values may change over the course of the journey from entry to graduation and beyond, and finally, to examine how closely these values mirror or diverge from those held by other members of the university community. The present study was undertaken to explore these questions and evolved from a series of conversations among a group of faculty, students, and administrator at our university who came together to discuss the role of higher education values in shaping and defining institutional identifies. The broad purpose of the research was to explore the perceived purposes and goals of the college experience held by various stakeholders in higher education including students, faculty, and administrators. We hoped that this process of making explicit the values held towards in higher education could serve as a model to institutions seeking to identify institutional priorities and pinpoint areas where there is either a lack of consensus or a perceived need for improvement.

After much discussion, the group loosely conceptualized higher educational values as implicit standards and expectations about higher education that typically influence the decisions of educators, administrators, and students on campus. These values are manifested in expectations concerning the value or worth of the college experience held by various members of the university community, institutional climate, relationships between the university and outsiders (accrediting and other governing bodies, employers, the community), and roles and responsibilities of students, faculty, and administrators.

This article will describe the portion of the research that focused on student perceptions. It began with focus group discussions with students from which were obtained 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 questionnaire was composed of items drawn from these themes and the gap analysis technique was employed to compare students' perceptions of an "ideal university" against their own experiences at their current university. The gap analysis model was adapted from the marketing literature on measuring service quality with the SERVQUAL Scale (Parasuraman, Zeithaml, & Berry, 1988). This technique, which has been applied successfully to the higher education setting (Browne, Kaldenberg, Browne, & Brown, 1998), identified areas of student satisfaction and dissatisfaction with their educational experience. Students' academic values were compared to those held by faculty and administrators at the university on items included in faculty and administrator questionnaires.



A total of 699 students drawn from 35 randomly selected classes were surveyed at a small (3677 students) primarily undergraduate Midwestern university. Classes were selected by flagging every sixth class on the class schedule and contacting the instructor for permission to have one of the investigators distribute the survey during class time. Five instructors of the forty selected classes refused to allow us to conduct the survey in their classes.

The administration of the survey began with a brief description of the project and instructions about how to complete the survey. Students were advised that their participation was voluntary and they could opt out of completing the survey and choose to do other activities at their desk. While it was difficult to maintain an accurate count of the number of students who chose to opt out, it appeared that no more than one or two students in any class chose not to participate. Students were guaranteed confidentiality. Participating students then signed a consent form and turned in the completed surveys to the investigator who thanked them for their participation, reiterated the purposes of the study, and answered any questions students or the instructor had.

Of the collected surveys, 21 surveys were discarded because they were largely incomplete; we also discarded ten surveys from graduate students. The resulting 668 usable surveys were completed by 373 (56%) women and 294 (44%) men and included one student who did not complete the gender question. The respondents were fairly well distributed across class levels with 162 (24%) first-year students, 135 (20%) sophomores, 153 (23%)juniors, and 218 (33%) seniors. The sample was representative of the undergraduate student population at the institution in terms of gender composition and class level. We did not control for other factors such as race, SES, generation attending college, regional differences (urban, suburban, rural).


We chose to develop our own measure of educational values because we wanted to investigate what students at our particular institution had to say about their educational experience in order to develop items that were relevant to their values. Moreover, we were unable to locate an existing questionnaire that assessed students' values of higher education as distinct from their satisfaction with various aspects of their college experience. Therefore we conducted a total of eight focus groups using as facilitators teams of trained faculty and student dyads. For the focus groups we recruited existing groups (classes, club members, resident hall members) of between six and 18 students who agreed to expound on their reasons for going to college; their most meaningful courses, teachers, and experiences; and their expectations of themselves, their teachers, and university.

Themes extracted from these focus groups were used to generate value statements often phrased to include the tradeoffs we heard from students that are often seen as inherent in the endorsement of a particular value (see table I for a complete listing of the items). For instance, the item, "smaller colleges allow strong connections with other students and faculty, even when they can't provide the same services and programs as larger colleges" was derived from students' perceptions of the pros of attending a relatively small college. In addition to the items that were developed from students' experiences, seven items were added that were derived from a similar survey on educational values developed from faculty focus groups and administered to faculty and administrators. Thus, the survey addressed institutional goals that may not be apparent to students but are nevertheless relevant to other constituents at this university and are commonly cited in the literature about the values of higher education. For Table, see issue's website <>

The survey was developed such that each value statement was rated twice on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Students first rated statements in terms of the degree to which they felt the value was essential for an excellent university (Ideal) of the size and type they attended and then whether they felt the statement characterized their current university (Actual). This format allowed us to compare students' opinions of what values they felt constituted an ideal institution of higher education against their perceptions of the values manifested at their current institution.

The second section of the questionnaire included demographic questions such as age, sex, class level, major, whether students had attended another college or university and what type of institution, whether they lived on or off campus, and a record of how they spent their time during a typical academic week. Piloting the survey in marketing class during a summer session alerted us to problems with several items allowing us to remove some items and reword others.

Results and Discussion

Coefficient alphas of .85 for the Ideal Values scale and .87 for the Actual Values scale indicated that the measure demonstrated satisfactory reliability. Means and standard deviations of all 36 value statements are presented in Table 1 in descending order with most highly endorsed Ideal values presented first. Gap scores were obtained by subtracting mean Actual scores from mean Ideal scores for each item. A factor analysis revealed no interpretable factors. Therefore, paired sample t-tests were conducted to test the significance of differences between means on the comparable items from each scale. A Bonferroni adjustment was used to establish the critical probability level (p<.001) for determining statistical significance of individual gap scores to minimize the likelihood of spurious results of testing 36 comparisons.

Differences between upper and lower division students and between students, faculty and administrators on selected items were evaluated using Pearson's Chi-square test of independence. The following sections will examine values that were most and least often selected by students as characteristic of their ideal university, items with the largest gaps indicating student dissatisfaction, and items that relate to the overall goals of higher education. A final section will examine comparisons between students', faculty, and administrators' ideal values.

Most Strongly Endorsed Ideal Values Examining the items that were most highly endorsed by students (with mean ratings of 3.95 or higher) shows us what these students appear to value most in a college education. They seem to value institutions that are responsive to students (item 5), that emphasize learning per se rather than grades (item 8), maintain current technology and faculty expertise (items 20 and 27), and exhibit open communication across campus (item 17).

Least Strongly Endorsed Ideal Values Items with mean ratings of 2.85 or lower are statements that evoked strongest disagreement among students. By reversing each statement, it appears that this sample of students tend to take the views that students should take an active role in their education (item 10) and adjustment to college programs are positive (item 4). However, their rejection of items 23 and 25 shows that these students tended to undervalue classes outside of the major and classes designed to develop abstract thinking in favor of classes in the major and classes that are perceived by students to explicitly develop work-related skills and competencies.

Large Gap Items The difference between mean student ratings on the Ideal and the Actual scales for each item is particularly helpful for understanding students' perceptions of our institution relative to the perceived importance of each dimension. The items with the largest positive gaps indicate areas of student concern and dissatisfaction. The three items with relatively large gaps (more than one point on the scale) were item 18 (saving students' time and lessening paperwork), item 14 (range of class time choice), and item 5 (resolution of problems).

Our students appear to be most dissatisfied with the perceived bureaucracy and lack of flexibility of the university to their needs as seen in the items with the largest gaps: item 18, "the institution demonstrates care and respect for students by saving them time and paperwork whenever possible" and item 14, "the university provides a wide range of choices as to when classes are offered, even though students have to pay more tuition to hire more teachers." Although lack of bureaucracy and catering to students' schedules were seen as only moderately important in terms of an "ideal university," these students are dissatisfied when the university do not meet their standards in these areas. Our sample of juniors and seniors were significantly more likely to feel that ideal institutions lessen students' paperwork (item 18) than first and second year students, [chi square] (2, N = 642) = 22.53, p = .000.

This criticism of the bureaucratic aspect of higher education may be partially attributable to today's students' higher stress levels and tighter schedules. More students today are working and/or volunteering in addition to attending college than ever before, making responsiveness and flexibility an increasingly critical component of today's educational environment (Astin, 1993; Cress & Sax, 1998). Among the students sampled in our study, 90% reported some form of employment, working on average just slightly less than two and a half hours a day. Furthermore, although students were more likely to agree than disagree (mean rating = 3.43) that in their "ideal" university, "students put academics first despite of other demands on their time, however reasonable" (item 9), they also acknowledged that this was not current practice with their peers (mean rating = 2.92). Despite recent concerns regarding higher education becoming consumer driven, the students in our sample did not seem to universally endorse this view (item 15).

It is not surprising that item 5, "When students feel they are being treated unfairly at the university, they will be listened to and the problem will be resolved," would be highly endorsed, particularly since it lacked a trade-off in values. In fact, four out of five students agreed with this statement. More importantly however, this value was perceived as being uncharacteristic of their current university showing the third largest gap between Ideal and Actual ratings t (618) = 20.52, p < .000. Only 21% of students agreed that this statement characterized their university. This finding parallels the work of researchers at another Midwestern university who, in investigating predictors of levels of student "trust" in their institution, found that the most important antecedent to this concept of trust was perceived institutional "sincerity," followed by "expertise" and "congeniality" (Ghosh, Whipple, & Bryan, 2001). Furthermore, in another study it was found that students' willingness to recommend an institution to a friend was most related to whether she feels she has been treated fairly and can trust the institution (Browne et al., 1998).

The Goals of Higher Education Recent studies of students' perceptions of the goals of college have characterized students as increasingly pragmatic and career-focused in their approach to higher education as compared to faculty or even future employers (Hersh, 1997). While our study found some evidence of this trend in student attitudes, we were able to further explore how students viewed various aspects of their educational experience. Students in our study clearly valued knowledge and information gained at college. They rejected the ideas that getting good grades was more important than learning and that simply possessing a degree was more important than "foundational knowledge and skills" (items 8 and 33). Students also felt that they should play an active role in their education (item 13) and should contribute to the learning environment (item 10). Juniors and seniors were more likely to disagree with item 10 than first and second year students, [chi square] (2, N = 655) = 18.47, p = .000, suggesting that upper level students expect to be more active in the classroom than lower level students. Similarly endorsed was the ideal that "student growth and development is the primary goal of the college experience" (item 31). Yet, students clearly devalued abstract thinking skills over career oriented knowledge and rejected liberal education classes in favor of classes in the major (items 23 and 25).

Comparisons of Student, Faculty, and Administrators Seven of the items included in the student questionnaire were drawn verbatim from a comparable survey of academic values administered to all faculty and administrators (see Table 2). Comparisons among these three groups on these items illustratesComparisons among these three groups on these items illustrate how different stakeholders may perceive quality in higher education in similar or different ways. Although there were no significant differences between the groups on item 31 concerning the main goal of college, all other comparisons were significant using the Pearson [chi square] test. Interestingly, despite the high level of agreement about the goal of education among students, faculty and administrators, students were the only group that felt that growth and development in career oriented areas should take precedence over more broadly defined liberal education skills and knowledge (item 28) [chi square] (4, N = 760) - 48.66, p = .000. Other studies have found that faculty tend to place career preparation secondary to intellectual or learning-based motivations both in the United States (Hersh, 1997) and in Canada (Alexitch & Page, 1997).

Students were also significantly more likely to value faculty who are willing to accommodate student needs than either faculty or administrators (item 3) []2 (4, N = 760) = 66.55), p = .000. Not surprisingly, students and administrators failed to see the value of faculty autonomy (item 6) [] 2 (4, N = 760) = 19.61), p = .001. Finally, while students were significantly less likely than the other two groups to endorse institutional innovation (item 21), long-term planning (item 22), and open communications (item17) as criteria of institutional quality, this difference can be attributed to the high ratings faculty and administrators gave these items. The majority of students also agreed with these value statements, but they did not feel as strongly about them as the other groups. For Table, see issue's website <>

Limitations and Conclusions

This most significant limitation of this study is that it is based on results from a single institution and any conclusions are not generalizable to other institutions. Nevertheless this study presents one approach to assessing the perceptions of students about core academic and institutional values on an individual campus and may provide other institutions with a starting point in their own investigations of students' academic values. This process not only has been fascinating, but useful in pointing to a need to more explicitly communicate with students our visions of the educational process, while acknowledging their different perspectives. In addition, there may be even relatively minor changes made at the university level to address seemingly major student concerns that ultimately may impact student retention, satisfaction, and success. A second limitation of this study lies in the cross-sectional design which prevents which prevents conclusions about how these students' perceptions may evolve as their experience with their university increases. Longitudinal assessment is necessary to make these conclusions.

Institutions are composed of diverse groups of people who have a variety of expectations of expectations. While many studies have examined student satisfaction with their college experience (Browne et al., 1998; Kuh, 1999), to our knowledge this is the only study that has investigated academic values from the students' perspectives. The results of this study have provided a picture of an ideal university through the eyes of students and information about how well their university matches that ideal. While faculty and administrators may not always agree with students' points of view, it behooves us to be knowledgeable of students' expectations and perceptions, as well as their dissatisfactions. This information can be valuable for decision-making at every stage of institutional planning including planning course offerings, academic calendars, special initiatives, and college orientation programs. The results of this study support the suggestions of other researchers in higher education who, in noting a disconnect between how faculty and students view the goals of higher education, recommend that faculty more actively transmit the concepts of liberal education in the course of their interactions with students (Atkinson et al, 1998; Alexitch et al., 1997; Higbee & Dwinell, 1997). Although the ingredients critical to creating a positive climate for learning may vary across institutions, colleges and universities most successful in recruiting, retaining, and teaching students will be those whose clients value the services and products offered.


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Author Note

The authors would like to acknowledge the assistance Nicole Beltz, Olena Sydomk, Julia Plum, and Jeff Bowman in this research. The contributions of these students were funded by a Student Faculty Scholarship Award from Bemidji State University. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Laurie L. Desiderato, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Box 23, Bemidji State University, 1500 Birchmont Drive, Bemidji, MN 56601.
Laurie L. Desiderato, Bemidji State University
Jeff W. Totten, Southeastern Louisiana University
Robert D. Ley, Bemidji State University
Marilyn Meisenheimer, Bemidji State University

Dr. Desiderato is Associate Professor of Psychology. In addition to her teaching clinical responsibilities, she is the assessment coordinator for the College of Social and Natural Sciences. Dr. Totten is an Assistant Professor of Marketing. His research efforts have ranged from marketing education, health care marketing, and fast-food nutrition marketing to e-mail and web surveys and case research. Dr. Ley is Professor and Chair of the Economics Department, as well Director of International Studies. Dr. Meisenheimer is Assistant Professor in Educational Foundations. She has spent nineteen years as a K-12 teacher and administrator and seven years as director of an upward bound project.
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Author:Meisenheimer, Marilyn
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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