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Are Our Expectations Realistic?

Reflecting on the recent departure of leaders from across the higher education sector, Inside Higher Ed’s Confessions of a Community College Dean blog ran an article last week discussing the need to manage expectations in higher education.

Behind the veil of the title “Dean Dad”, the author discusses his own experiences as a higher education administrator and argues that the expectations students, graduates and society has of colleges and universities are unrealistic.

He points out the difficulty in being innovative and daring without going against the grain too much. He points out the difficulty in being asked for greater flexibility while the structure around creating programs can slow the process to a halt—even passing changes through a Curriculum Committee can take a year, he points out, and that’s assuming the changes are accepted on the first attempt.

At a larger scale, he argues society and students have placed unrealistic expectations on what community colleges specifically, and higher education institutions generally, are capable of. In the community college context, he sees immense problems in the college being used as a one-year remedial service meant to “undo the damage of a struggling K-12 system at a low cost, and in a year or less”. Furthermore, he questions how colleges are meant to accurately predict which companies and industries will thrive in order to prepare students for jobs of the future.

“We’re even supposed to be able to predict future labor trends accurately,” he writes. “If I could do that, I’d buy stock in the relevant companies.”

The difficulty seems to come from a lack of clear direction from governing bodies. On the one hand, he writes that institutions are being told to be more nimble, more high tech and overall to improve their quality. On the other hand, there is less money being made available with which to make these changes. Moreover, the success of institutions is based off metric analysis which only applies to four-year residential colleges and universities.

A clearer and more realistic set of expectations is what’s needed, “Dean Dad” writes, to begin to move the higher education system in the right direction.