According to admissions departments’ informational pamphlets, the primary reason for attending college is rather noble: Campus is a place to discover one’s interests and strengths, a place for both personal and intellectual development. But in recent years, another narrative has taken hold—that what matters is return on investment. In other words: What kind of job-market value does a graduate get from a college degree?
Post-college job considerations have always been part of the equation. But with the rapidly rising tuition costs, the national student-debt crisis, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs encouraging some students to drop out altogether and enter the job market, this question has taken on new urgency. And it’s an important one, because it begets a whole slew of other anxieties about college. If one of the goals of higher education is to ensure that graduates go on to be financially stable, then a bunch of figures matter: how they fare in the labor market, what they’re paid, and what their loan-repayment and default rates are, to name a few.
These considerations will sound distasteful to those who believe that education should be its own end. But, increasingly, students are looking at college degrees from a means-to-an-end perspective. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and the author of Generation Me, and Kristin Donnelly, a doctoral student in experimental psychology at UC San Diego, looked at the generational differences in the reasons given for attending college. They found that students are increasingly motivated by quantifiable post-graduation outcomes—one of the most important being earnings.