an email. “Thus, if demographic shifts caused shifts in values, the values of more recent populations of college students should be less extrinsic, not more. And although more students attend college, the median income of students’ parents has stayed fairly constant, so that’s not likely to explain it either.”
It’s not hard to imagine that students attending college after the recession might have money and career anxieties. But that doesn’t match up with the data, as the rise of extrinsic motivation started well before the recession. Further, the researchers found that unemployment was not significantly correlated with the reasons students provided for going to college. The researchers do note, however, that the reasons to go to college became more extrinsic at the same time and at the same pace as income inequality increased. It’s not conclusive, but, they write, “Millennial students’ focus on making more money may be a practical consideration.”
Whatever the cause, students (and colleges) might be increasingly taking a consumer mentality when it comes to college, which might be devaluing the education process. The consumerization of higher education has been linked to grade inflation—some say a “GPA arms race” is the result of so many colleges trying to make their graduates more desirable in the labor market. Another problem with approaching higher education as a product is that it often doesn’t even work that way: Job markets often change so rapidly that it’s difficult to game the market by studying something that’s perceived to be profitable.
And lastly, as students become more focused on money and jobs post-graduation, that attitude can undermine the educational processes that theoretically play a role in making graduates successful. “The downside is that colleges are different from most businesses that merely provide a product,” Twenge says. “Education is the only product that the ‘consumer’ seems to want less of (many students would be happy to get A’s for no work). And if the student sees college as transactional—‘I pay my money; you give me my degree’—they are actually getting less of the product they are paying for (an education). A college degree might help you get a good job, but to do that job well you need a good education.”