Between 1971 and 2014, the American Freshman Project has asked first-year students, most of them aged 18, about their reasons for going to university. Now for a paper in The Journal of Social Psychology, the psychologists Jean Twenge and Kristin Donnelly have analysed the answers of 8 million students across this period.
Among the reasons tested in the survey were: “To be able to get a better job”; “To be able to make more money”; “To learn more about things that interest me”; and “To prepare myself for graduate or professional school.”
To tie the students’ answers to these questions to a validated psychological measure of motives, Twenge and Donnely asked 189 undergrads at San Diego State University to answer the same questions used in the Freshman Project and also had them complete an established research questionnaire about their aspirational motives – the Aspiration Index. This was to find out which answers on the Freshman survey tended to correlate with intrinsic (e.g. self-acceptance) and extrinsic (e.g. money-based) motives on the validated psychology questionnaire.
The researchers divided up the 8 million students who took the Freshman Project survey into three generations: Boomers (born 1944–1960), Generation X (1961–1979) and Millenials (1980–1994). The biggest change between Boomers and Millenials was that Millenials were more likely to say that they were attending university to make more money – an answer that, not surprisingly, correlates with extrinsic motives on the Aspiration Index. Another big change was that Millenials agreed less strongly that they were motivated to “learn about things that interest me” – an answer that reverse correlates with extrinsic motives.
The researchers said their findings provide support for anecdotal observations that today’s students have a more “consumer mentality” than prior generations. Note, however, that the trends towards more interest in extrinsic motives began among Generation X in the 1990s; Millenials have simply continued that trajectory. Note too, that students continue to be more motivated overall by intrinsic factors than extrinsic ones, it’s just that today they are more motivated by money and less by learning than in the past.
The study can’t speak to why students’ motives have changed, though the researchers note that income inequality and rising attendance at university have increased alongside stronger extrinsic motives. They also warn that students’ increased tendency to see education as “a transactional procedure or a means to an end” could be harmful, undermining their ability to retain what they learn and increasing the temptation to cheat and plagiarise.
—Generational differences in American students’ reasons for going to college, 1971–2014: The rise of extrinsic motives
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.
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