Have any studies been done of students' motives for being students at universities?

At one extreme there are those who want to study at a university in disregard of the disapproval of their parents and friends and everyone else. At an opposite extreme are those who are there only because of the expectations of others. And there are those who regard study at a university only as a price of a job they hope to get later.

Do any hard data exist on the proportions in each of these groups or on whether some other motivations exist?

  • 16
    Among the motivations, I think you overlooked those who become students at universities because they want to learn more about something of interest ;-) Nov 19, 2016 at 19:53
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    @MassimoOrtolano : I didn't overlook those; they're included in my first group. Nov 19, 2016 at 20:11
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    @MichaelHardy What if their parents and friends approve of them studying at university? Are they still in the first group?
    – kmm
    Nov 19, 2016 at 22:30
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    Anecdotal motivations that I can't post as an answer: I'm the first person in my family to go to university. I am here because I don't like the stagnancy of the "working American". I don't like the little bubbles people put themselves in, unaware of the world around their immediate self. I'm here because I want to learn in order to affect change in life beyond myself - other countries, cultures, bettering the world and future young people. My best friend from high school wants to major in computer science to get a high-paying job so he can enjoy his life. So, very different motivations. Nov 20, 2016 at 3:44
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    You would also be surprised at the number of (new college) students who don't even know the reason why they are in school. In such a survey, "I am here because I don't know what else to do" option should be available. Nov 20, 2016 at 6:48

2 Answers 2


This is an active area of inquiry in US academia, as market research for admissions departments and also as part of the larger investigation into student "success". Our dean likes to remind us that the main reason for going to college used to be "to get an education" but now it's "to get a job" (and thus we need to be more get-a-job focused). I don't actually know which study he's quoting, but an article out this month seems to support his contention.

Twenge and Donnelly have published a retrospective study of students entering college between 1971 and 2014 surveying the students' reasons for pursuing higher education. From the abstract:

Millennials (in college 2000s–2010s) and Generation X (1980s–1990s) valued extrinsic reasons for going to college (“to make more money”) more, and anti-extrinsic reasons (“to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas”) less than Boomers when they were the same age in the 1960s–1970s.

(Twenge, J. M., & Donnelly, K. (2016). Generational differences in American students’ reasons for going to college, 1971–2014: The rise of extrinsic motives. Journal Of Social Psychology, 156(6), 620-629. doi:10.1080/00224545.2016.1152214)

Other articles that may be of interest (by no means an exhaustive list):

  • Balloo, K., Pauli, R., & Worrell, M. (2015). Undergraduates’ personal circumstances, expectations and reasons for attending university. Studies in Higher Education. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/03075079.2015.1099623

  • Bui, K. V. T. (2002). First-generation college students at a four-year university: background characteristics, reasons for pursuing higher education, and first-year experiences. College Student Journal, 36(1). 3+.

  • Kennett, D. J., Reed, M. J., & Lam, D. (2011). The Importance of Directly Asking Students Their Reasons for Attending Higher Education. Issues in Educational Research, 21(1) 65-74.

  • Kennett, D. J., Reed, M. J., & Stuart A. S. (2013). The impact of reasons for attending university on academic resourcefulness and adjustment. Active Learning in Higher Education, 14(2). First published on June 10, 2015. doi:10.1177/1469787415589626

  • Phinney, J. S.; Dennis, J.; Osorio, S. (2006). Reasons to attend college among ethnically diverse college students. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 12(2).347-366. doi: 10.1037/1099-9809.12.2.347

  • Schultz, J., & Higbee, J. (2007). Reasons for Attending College: The Student Point of View. Research and Teaching in Developmental Education, 23(2), 69-76.


It's quite likely that students entertain a collection of motivations (and de-motivators) rather than just one, so if such data exist they would probably be highly specific (to particular regions, economic conditions, personal circumstances and so on...) and difficult to extrapolate to other settings.

That said, in terms of general or potential categories, this study of students in HUNGARY AND SERBIAN VOJVODINA lists the following motives, with interest, employability and economic reward covering most of the sample.

  • I wanted to study in this field because I am interested in it. 45%

  • I believe it is easy to find a job in this field. 13%

  • I believe I can make good money in this field. 12%

  • I have professional connections in this field. 8%

  • My parents decided that I should study in this course. 8%

  • I had no other idea what to study. 4%

  • I had no particular reasons. 3%

  • This was the course I could afford financially. 3%

  • This was the only available course nearby. 2%

  • Other 2%

  • Confirmed. I still have that collection of demotivators from my student days on my hard drive. (SCNR) Nov 20, 2016 at 2:26
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    Your study seems to be about why students chose a certain field, not why they chose to study at all, which seems to be what the question was asking.
    – svick
    Nov 20, 2016 at 15:13

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