Today's students are increasingly focused on their future jobs

Making money has become a greater motivation to attend college than gaining a general education

Many college students today are pursuing higher education primarily as a means to employment, in contrast with the generations that preceded them, Bourree Lam reports for The Atlantic

Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, and Kristin Donnelly, a doctoral student in experimental psychology at University of California, San Diego, analyzed data from University of California, Los Angeles' (UCLA) Freshman Survey to determine the reasons that different generations of students attend college.

Millennials have different values than earlier generations

Eight million college students completed the survey between 1971 and 2014, allowing researchers to understand three different generations' views on the purpose of a college education.

Over the years, popular answers have been:

  • An opportunity for self-discovery;
  • Graduate school preparation;
  • Steady earnings;
  • A better appreciation of important ideas; and
  • Improved odds of securing a job.

Different generations held different opinions about the value of each goal. For example, 55% of Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) valued higher salaries, compared with 69% of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1981), and 71% of Millennials (born between 1982 and 1999.) Over the course of the three generations, more students also indicated that they were going to college to get a better job.

Also see: Are today's students migrating to value?

Twenge and Donnelly divided people's reasons for going to college into extrinsic and intrinsic categories. The researchers controlled for the fact that Millennial students rate all the options for reasons to go to college as more important than their predecessors, and they discovered that the most popular reason for going to college is a desire to make more money.

At the same time, the least popular reason for going to college is now to gain a general education. Twenge and Donnelly conclude that extrinsic values have become a greater motivator for attending college than intrinsic ones.

What's not to blame: demographics, the economy

According to Twenge, recent changes in demographics cannot account for the shift in values. 

"The largest demographic shift in college populations is that more women now attend college—and women are less likely to focus on materialism," she says. "Thus, if demographic shifts caused shifts in values, the values of more recent populations of college students should be less extrinsic, not more."

Could it be the recession? Twenge says no, explaining that the value shift began long before the recession. What about unemployment? Twenge rejects that hypothesis, too. The researchers found no significant correlation between unemployment and students' responses.

Income inequality, consumer mindset could play a role

However, the researchers did notice two trends coincided: students began to value extrinsic reasons for attending college at the same time—and at the same rate—as income inequality grew.

It is possible, therefore, that "Millennial students' focus on making more money may be a practical consideration," according to the researchers. 

It is also likely that both students and colleges are increasingly viewing higher education as more of a consumer transaction than an educational experience. Twenge warns that this attitude not only undermines the purpose of higher education, but also hurts students in the end.

"The downside is that colleges are different from most businesses that merely provide a product," Twenge says. "If the student sees college as transactional—'I pay my money; you give me my degree'—they are actually getting less of the product they are paying for (an education). A college degree might help you get a good job, but to do that job well you need a good education" (Lam, The Atlantic, 4/28). 

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