How the Recession Changed the Reasons Students Go to College

Posted by Liz Dwyer

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Is college designed to give students job skills, or to encourage them to study subjects they're passionate about? It's a question that can incite endless debate, but according to the 46th annual Freshman Survey—a project of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA—students increasingly believe it's the former.

The survey, the largest of its kind, polled nearly 204,000 full-time freshmen entering 270 four-year colleges and universities last fall. Researchers found that 85.9 percent of freshmen said they're in college "to be able to get a better job." Prior to the recession, freshmen consistently answered “to learn more about things that interest me” as the major reason they pursued higher education.

Students pursuing different majors offered strikingly different motivations for seeking college degrees. Roughly 88 percent of freshmen planning to major in science, technology, engineering, or math, and 92 percent of students majoring in business, cited improved job prospects as the most important factor. Meanwhile, a relatively paltry 73 percent of humanities majors said job skills are most important to them. 

Also predictably, 85 percent of business students said they're in school "to be able to make more money" compared to just 56 percent of humanities majors. But the good news for humanities majors is that, although their overall salaries remain lower than STEM and business majors, salaries for those grads saw the biggest percentage jump last year.

The recession has reshaped the entire nation, so it's not surprising that students are reacting by changing their priorities. Just as Americans who grew up during the Great Depression were shaped by economic hardship, the current generation of students are understandably motivated by a desire for financial stability.

Photo via (cc) Flicker user David Berkowitz