Why Go to College? Student Perspectives on Higher Ed

Why Go to College? Student Perspectives on Higher Ed
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The consumers of higher education have spoken. Workforce outcomes are, far and away, the driving motivation for pursuing post-secondary education across all ages, races, and degree types.

According to a new Strada-Gallup poll, which surveyed 86,000 students at over 3,000 post-secondary institutions, 58 percent say work outcomes — such as finding a good job with good pay and opportunities for career advancement — are their primary motivation for attending. This is true across all higher education pathways and demographic subgroups.

Not surprisingly, even more Americans (72 percent) with postgraduate education experiences identify career goals as their top motivation, as do 60 percent of those on a technical or vocational pathway. The second most common motivation for Americans with postgraduate education eperiences, “general learning and knowledge,” trails at just 23 percent.

Of course, most students who pursue post-secondary education want a good job when they graduate. And, it turns out, this clarity of purpose is important. This new data tells us not only that many students go to school in order to get a job, but that clearly defined career goals play an important role in determining if those students actually complete their chosen course of study.

Students who do not complete their degree are relatively likely to report general aspirations for learning and knowledge as their top motivation (31 percent). Those who did complete their degrees tended to place these goals lower on their list: vocational/technical training (14 percent), post-graduate work/degrees (18 percent), two-year degrees (25 percent), or four-year degrees (20 percent). In an earlier Strada-Gallup report, students who did not complete their education were also the most likely to say they would study a different major if they could do it all over again.

Institutions should take care to identify these students and work to ensure their path to completion is purposeful. Helping applicants and students to articulate work-related motivations when choosing an institution or major may make a difference in boosting persistence and completion rates. Strong career advising and transparency about the workforce paths that stem from each major can help to ensure that students enter and leave college with a clear idea of where they are trying to go and how to get there.

Perhaps most importantly, the data affirms that the majority of education consumers believe enabling career readiness falls well within the mission and responsibility of our nation’s colleges and universities. It is the undisputed reason why most are going and why those who enroll with that purpose tend to finish at a higher rate.

Enrollment is declining, schools are struggling financially, and surveys reveal increasing distrust of higher education among the general public. At such a time, higher education must reorient itself around student motivations and better connect on-campus experience with the job market. Where else but the perceptions of education consumers themselves should we look for solutions to strengthen our institutions?

Misplaced investments in postsecondary education are preventable, as long as we understand the factors that lead to student success. Strada Education Network, for example, is empowering consumers by creating the nation’s largest data set of consumer perspectives on pathways from education to employment. Since June 2016, we’ve partnered with Gallup to interview more than a quarter million American students about their education experiences, decisions, and outcomes. The insights are representative of consumers from all educational attainment levels, socioeconomic backgrounds, races/ethnicities, and ages.

Consumers are telling us in their own words what they want and need most from higher education. And the solutions are becoming loud and clear, if we are willing to listen.

Carol D’Amico is Executive Vice President with Strada Education Network, a national nonprofit dedicated to improving lives by strengthening the pathways between education and employment. Prior to Strada, she served in the U.S. Department of Education as assistant secretary for adult and vocational education, and as executive vice president and chancellor of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana.

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