Economists tend to dogmatically reduce human behavior to crude self-interest.  They’re often deeply wrong.  Sometimes, though, the shoe fits.  UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute has been asking kids why they’re going to college for a long time.  In recent decades, a hefty majority freely confesses that their main motives are careerist and materialist:

Incoming students persist in putting a premium on job-related reasons to go to college. Continuing to rise is the importance of going to college in order to get a better job, which rose two percentage points this year to an all-time high of 87.9%, up from 85.9% in 2011 and considerably higher than its low of 67.8% in 1976 (see Figure 1). In the minds of today’s college students, getting a better job continues to be the most prevalent reason to go to college.

Also at an all-time high as a reason to go to college is “to be able to make more money,” moving from 71.7% in 2011 to 74.6% in 2012. This is now the fourth-ranked important reason to go to college, surpassing “to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas,” which is now at 72.8%. A related finding is that is “being very well off financially” as a personal goal rose to an all-time high in 2012, with 81.0% of incoming students reporting this as a “very important” or “essential” personal goal, up from 79.6% in 2011.

The long-run picture:


Yes, you could object, “Over half the students also care deeply about getting a ‘general education and appreciation of ideas.'”  But remember Social Desirability Bias.  Saying you’re in college for the money sounds bad.  Saying you’re in college for the ideas sounds good.  Yet the ugly answer has generally been more popular.  If you make even a moderate adjustment for Social Desirability Bias, crude self-interest wins by a landslide.

Not convinced?  Switching from vague generalities to specifics is a helpful remedy for Social Desirability Bias.  Look at the results from this broader list of students’ college objectives:

“Being very well off financially” sounds less noble than anything else on the list, yet it remains the top response.  Idealistic motives like “influencing the political structure,” making original scientific or artistic contributions, or just “influencing social values” sound lovely, but most respondents don’t even pretend they’re priorities.  The only flowery objective that commands widespread assent – “Helping others who are in difficulty” – is also conveniently empty.

Like most professors, I’m not fond of careerist students.  I prefer to teach classes full of kids who love ideas for their own sake.  Indeed, there are few things I treasure more.  But let’s not fool ourselves.  Economists who assume that college attendance is driven by students’ greed are largely correct.