What is the Most Important Reason to Attend College?

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In recent years, higher education has become unquestionably linked with career development and earnings. In 2010, young adults with a bachelor’s degree earned 50% more than their peers who only completed high school. Monetary incentives may be an essential factor, but are higher salaries the most important reason to attend college?

A revealing 2012 study by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA indicated that for current students, “to be able to get a better job” is the most significant motive for obtaining a college degree. This represents a significant shift in attitudes, as prior to 2006 (and the recession), “To learn more about things that interest me” held the top position.

NerdWallet asked education writers, university administrators, students, and other constituents to give their thoughts on what’s behind the change in attitudes and why students ultimately choose to attend college

The economy and demographics of incoming college students play a major role in the shift in attitudes, placing the primary emphasis on job obtainment.

With the economic downturn and rising costs of education, students have undoubtedly focused on financial matters as a primary concern. A high school degree no longer carries much weight in the job market. Additionally, service and labor-intensive professions are being quickly depleted by technology and globalization

Dr. Mike Miller, VP for Enrollment and Student Services at Albany State University, concurs:

Today’s students have been hearing about unemployment since they were 14 years old. It has to have made an impression. Given the current economy I would agree that employment is a top priority. After the freedom of college, no one wants to move back home again. When employment goes up, I’ll bet the reasons for attending college will change to either “make a contribution to society” or “learn about things of interest to me.”

Dr. Mike LaBossiere, professor of philosophy at Florida A&M University, offers another plausible explanation:

…the number of women and minorities attending college has increased (women are now a majority at the undergraduate level). When traditionally underrepresented people make a gain, they tend to focus on the practical matters-in this case, the job.

Ashley Felstow, a current student in Cleary University’s Health Care Management program, describes the struggles that students like her often face while seeking employment:

My number one reason for attending college is to get a better job. To me, a better job equals a better future. I think with the economy how it has been, and so many layoffs over the years, students know that they need to go above and beyond to get good jobs. Gone are the days that you can snag a job out of high school and work your way up at a company. More and more businesses are requiring college degrees for jobs that used to need absolutely no schooling for. Hundreds of people compete for one job opening, so students in today’s world need to do everything they can to set themselves apart. A college degree is the first step that students can take.

The motivations for attending college may change throughout college – not all students follow a singular path or have one overarching motivation.

Four years is an eternity for a college freshman. A lot can change in terms of ideas, opinions, experiences, etc. throughout the process. So even for those entering college with the sole intent of making more money upon graduation, the interactions with new peers and the plethora of academic possibilities may unlock previously undiscovered passions for learning.

Isa Adney, author of Community College Success and a blog of the same name, elaborates:

Without a college degree, there is a ceiling in almost every industry. Having a degree helps break those ceilings and gives students options. But I think just going to college to get “a job” isn’t enough motivation. Students should be able to see the college experience and the degree as something that will enrich their lives and prepare them to give their best talents and strengths to the world.

Rob Schwartz of Total College Planning highlights one source of motivation he sometimes encounters:

…I also come across students who are going to college for the opportunity to grow as a person and take some smaller steps as an adult in a learning environment, as opposed to taking their chances as ‘real adults’ in the working world.

In the end, most people agree that a earning a college degree is a positive move for anyone to make.

Most universities and colleges offer far more than just classes and degrees. Social events, civic engagement, networking resources and plenty of other benefits are important as well.

Mary Ann Holladay, Director of the Utah Women and Education Initiative, explains how a college degree can improve self esteem:

Why go to College?
There are a wealth of reasons why an individual should pursue postsecondary education. Among them better physical and mental health, economic benefit, parenting skills and civic and community engagement. However, if forced to choose one single benefit, for me it would be self-esteem. One could argue that self-esteem is built in early childhood, and I certainly agree. Self-esteem is also nourished through life experience, and the experience of fulfillment and self-satisfaction in completing an education forms the foundation for many of the life experiences we can enjoy. Numerous studies have supported the notion that a strong self-concept and the belief that “I can” has led to amazing achievements. Drawing from my own experience, I do not believe I could be doing the work that I do today, had I not completed a formal education. Beyond academic credentials, I know that I live in a society and system that will support and reward self-development and that is why I am doing the work that I do.

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