According to admissions departments’ informational pamphlets, the primary reason for attending college is rather noble: Campus is a place to discover one’s interests and strengths, a place for both personal and intellectual development. But in recent years, another narrative has taken hold—that what matters is return on investment. In other words: What kind of job-market value does a graduate get from a college degree?
Post-college job considerations have always been part of the equation. But with the rapidly rising tuition costs, the national student-debt crisis, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs encouraging some students to drop out altogether and enter the job market, this question has taken on new urgency. And it’s an important one, because it begets a whole slew of other anxieties about college. If one of the goals of higher education is to ensure that graduates go on to be financially stable, then a bunch of figures matter: how they fare in the labor market, what they’re paid, and what their loan-repayment and default rates are, to name a few.
These considerations will sound distasteful to those who believe that education should be its own end. But, increasingly, students are looking at college degrees from a means-to-an-end perspective. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and the author of Generation Me, and Kristin Donnelly, a doctoral student in experimental psychology at UC San Diego, looked at the generational differences in the reasons given for attending college. They found that students are increasingly motivated by quantifiable post-graduation outcomes—one of the most important being earnings.
Twenge and Donnelly used data from the Freshman Survey—a UCLA initiative that has polled 8 million college students between 1971 and 2014—to figure out how three different generations thought about the purpose of college. The most popular answers, over the years, haven’t been a surprise: Students are hoping to secure a job, a greater appreciation of important ideas, steady earnings, an opportunity for self-exploration, and preparation for graduate school.
But different generations do approach the topic differently. From the survey data, 55 percent of Baby Boomers (here defined as those born between 1946 and 1964) felt making money was important, compared with 69 percent of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1981) and 71 percent of Millennials (born between 1982 and 1999). Those saying they were going to college to get a better job increased, moderately, as well.
Twenge said that she and Donnelly sorted the reasons provided for going to college as being either extrinsic or intrinsic. After controlling for the fact that all of the reasons were rated as more important than they were before, they found that the motivation that had gained the most popularity from the time of the Boomers to today was a desire to make money, while the one that had lost the most popularity was an interest in gaining a general educational background. So, extrinsic values have been gaining steam as a motivation to go to college, while intrinsic ones have lagged.
Why the shift? Twenge says that changes in who goes to college don’t seem to explain it. “The largest demographic shift in college populations is that more women now attend college—and women are less likely to focus on materialism,” she wrote in an email. “Thus, if demographic shifts caused shifts in values, the values of more recent populations of college students should be less extrinsic, not more. And although more students attend college, the median income of students’ parents has stayed fairly constant, so that’s not likely to explain it either.”
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It’s not hard to imagine that students attending college after the recession might have money and career anxieties. But that doesn’t match up with the data, as the rise of extrinsic motivation started well before the recession. Further, the researchers found that unemployment was not significantly correlated with the reasons students provided for going to college. The researchers do note, however, that the reasons to go to college became more extrinsic at the same time and at the same pace as income inequality increased. It’s not conclusive, but, they write, “Millennial students’ focus on making more money may be a practical consideration.”
Whatever the cause, students (and colleges) might be increasingly taking a consumer mentality when it comes to college, which might be devaluing the education process. The consumerization of higher education has been linked to grade inflation—some say a “GPA arms race” is the result of so many colleges trying to make their graduates more desirable in the labor market. Another problem with approaching higher education as a product is that it often doesn’t even work that way: Job markets often change so rapidly that it’s difficult to game the market by studying something that’s perceived to be profitable.
And lastly, as students become more focused on money and jobs post-graduation, that attitude can undermine the educational processes that theoretically play a role in making graduates successful. “The downside is that colleges are different from most businesses that merely provide a product,” Twenge says. “Education is the only product that the ‘consumer’ seems to want less of (many students would be happy to get A’s for no work). And 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.”