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What is the Difference Between an Aspiration and an Expectation?

Published in Inequalities by on February 26, 2013

[image (c) Eric Bézine]

Vincent Dupriez recently delivered a presentation at Glasgow University entitled ‘Social Inequalities of Post-secondary Educational Aspirations: influence of social background, school composition and institutional context’ [the published paper with the same title can be found here]. This is the abstract of the paper: 

The first goal of this article is to assess, for each country belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the influence of pupils’ sociocultural background on educational aspirations. The second goal is to explore whether, after controlling for educational achievement, the residual influence of sociocultural background is still significant. In addition, the authors estimate whether the sociocultural and academic characteristics of school composition have an additional impact on educational aspirations in this group of countries. Finally, they show that the structural characteristics of school systems moderate the influence of individual characteristics and school composition on educational aspirations.

Afterwards (okay after a couple of drinks), there was a brief discussion about the meaning of aspiration and how it differed from expectation – a term that was sometimes used interchangeably in the presentation (from what I remember) and also at certain points in the published paper. While this isn’t necessarily a criticism of Vincent’s paper, which made a convincing argument regarding the influence of school composition on aspirations, it seems to me that some education research tends to confuse the two concepts of aspiration and expectation, which can be problematic given that they mean quite different things, especially when it comes to the statement ‘intent to pursue’, a statement that looms large over the OECD study from which the data was taken.

The difference: to aspire means to dream about a possible future life, while to expect comes ready-made with a sense of entitlement. When a person expects to do well at school or go to university, it means that they believe it is likely to happen. The terms belong to different verb clusters – to aspire is associated with desire, dreaming, craving, hoping, wishing, yearning. To expect, on the other hand, means to assume, to anticipate, to predict, and to consider likely. The verbs ‘expect’ and ‘aspire’ are also embedded in different emotional contexts – when you expect to go to university, it tends to suggest that you feel worthy enough of such a position and location in life; that you will belong in the higher education environment. Such a state of emotional being cannot be said to attach itself so easily to those who aspire to a life of higher learning.

The question is, does such definitional complexity have a potential bearing on the outcomes of research such as that cited above? Does it matter if we leave vague the meaning of such terms as ‘expectation’? How important is the emotional context in studies of educational inequality?    


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About the author /

Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.


  1. Avatar

    I found this article in my web search “expectations vs. aspirations”. I was seeking a conversation on the subject as I have recently noted a difference in the two experiences and how they impact my thoughts of the future.
    I find that when I “expect” something, there is a fixed idea of how it should look and when I receive something different or not at all, I feel a disappointment and causes undue emotional suffering. My ability to adapt to the unexpected outcome is delayed, thus slowing my recovery to foster a new direction.
    When I “aspire”, the idea of the outcome is quite general and the entitlement mentioned in your essay is not present, therefore, it becomes more of an experiment on what may become of my endeavors and less of a set-up for feelings of failure or an inability to adapt to an undesired outcome.

    Thanks for sharing your view on this and giving me an opportunity to share my ideas.

  2. Mark Murphy
    Mark Murphy

    Hi Saint, thanks for your comment. Your own take on the difference mirrors my stance on the distinction, especially when it comes to their emotional context/fallout. The distinction is important as it has implications for current education policy – for example, the fashion for ‘raising aspirations’ among young people, given its potentially vague outcomes, may be a misguided adventure into
    the emotional states of adolescents.

    Are you involved in education, or is this a more personal interest?


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