College students today value education less and money more: study

Mark Makela | Reuters

What drives you most can ultimately determine your success. And, according to a paper highlighted by The British Psychology Society, millennials pursuing higher education in the U.S. are more motivated than previous generations by making money.

Researchers from San Diego State University came to the conclusion after assessing surveys of incoming college freshman conducted between 1971 and 2014.

Over eight million students in total, including millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers, were asked about their reasons for enrolling in school. They had to answer how much they valued outcomes like "to be able to get a better job," "to be able to make more money," "to learn more about things that interest me" and "to prepare myself for graduate or professional school."

About 71 percent of millennials said they felt making money was important, in contrast to only 55 percent of boomers who felt the same. Meanwhile, 68 percent of millennials said general education was important, versus 69 percent of boomers.

The researchers then looked at the answers "corrected for relative centrality," which allowed them to "see how the reasons have changed relative to the general tendency of students to say their reasons were important." This was necessary because millennials were more likely than the previous generations to list all the choices as important reasons for going to school.

When they crunched the numbers, the researchers found a 7 percent decrease in how much millennials value education compared to boomers.

What this indicates, researchers conclude, is that the quest for knowledge has been supplanted by more concrete motivations, like a paycheck.

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This makes sense when you consider how much more expensive college has become. In 1960, the median tuition at private colleges was $475, or about $4,000 in today's dollars. In 1970, it was $1,561 ($13,149 today) for four-year private institutions and $358 ($3,015 today) for public ones.

Today, in contrast, according to College Board, the average cost of one year at a public university for an in-state student is $20,090, and $34,220 for out-of-staters. The cost of private school, including tuition and fees, can be almost twice as high. That's how millennials have ended up with $1.4 trillion in student debt.

Meanwhile, the economic value of a college degree, which has been called the "new high school diploma," is not what it once was. Young people know that even an expensive BA can't be counted on to provide financial security.

So the practical attitude of today's college students makes sense. Sure, more young people value learning for what it can do for them. They don't have the freedom that boomers had to focus on learning for its own sake.

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The irony, however, is that education for its own sake can be the best way to build knowledge, and knowledge, as billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett would tell you, can be a bridge to wealth — and to success.

"Ultimately, there's one investment that supersedes all others," Buffett told Forbes. "Invest in yourself."

"Whatever you want to learn more, start doing it today. Don't put if off to your old age," he said. "You'll have a more rewarding life not only in terms of how much money you make, but how much fun you have out of life; you'll make more friends the more interesting person you are."

He also once reportedly told a group of students, "Read 500 pages like this every day ... That's how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it."

Of Buffett, Joe Hart, the president and CEO of Dale Carnegie, told CNBC, "One of the traits that is awesome about him is he is such an active learner. It's something that's made him very successful."

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