Bryan Caplan  

Crude Self-Interest: Why Kids Go to College

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Economists tend to dogmatically reduce human behavior to crude self-interest.  They're often deeply wrong.  Sometimes, though, the shoe fits.  UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute has been asking kids why they're going to college for a long time.  In recent decades, a hefty majority freely confesses that their main motives are careerist and materialist:
Incoming students persist in putting a premium on job-related reasons to go to college. Continuing to rise is the importance of going to college in order to get a better job, which rose two percentage points this year to an all-time high of 87.9%, up from 85.9% in 2011 and considerably higher than its low of 67.8% in 1976 (see Figure 1). In the minds of today's college students, getting a better job continues to be the most prevalent reason to go to college.

Also at an all-time high as a reason to go to college is "to be able to make more money," moving from 71.7% in 2011 to 74.6% in 2012. This is now the fourth-ranked important reason to go to college, surpassing "to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas," which is now at 72.8%. A related finding is that is "being very well off financially" as a personal goal rose to an all-time high in 2012, with 81.0% of incoming students reporting this as a "very important" or "essential" personal goal, up from 79.6% in 2011.
The long-run picture:


Yes, you could object, "Over half the students also care deeply about getting a 'general education and appreciation of ideas.'"  But remember Social Desirability Bias.  Saying you're in college for the money sounds bad.  Saying you're in college for the ideas sounds good.  Yet the ugly answer has generally been more popular.  If you make even a moderate adjustment for Social Desirability Bias, crude self-interest wins by a landslide.

Not convinced?  Switching from vague generalities to specifics is a helpful remedy for Social Desirability Bias.  Look at the results from this broader list of students' college objectives:


"Being very well off financially" sounds less noble than anything else on the list, yet it remains the top response.  Idealistic motives like "influencing the political structure," making original scientific or artistic contributions, or just "influencing social values" sound lovely, but most respondents don't even pretend they're priorities.  The only flowery objective that commands widespread assent - "Helping others who are in difficulty" - is also conveniently empty.

Like most professors, I'm not fond of careerist students.  I prefer to teach classes full of kids who love ideas for their own sake.  Indeed, there are few things I treasure more.  But let's not fool ourselves.  Economists who assume that college attendance is driven by students' greed are largely correct.

COMMENTS (18 to date)
August writes:

I think they are just grabbing for reasons that they've been told they need to go to college. We are told this is necessary since childhood, and we don't stop to reflect on whether or not it is actually true. Additionally, since corporations are trying to externalize all their costs with regard to finding competent people onto the rest of society, it actually looks impossible to get a real job without college. Of course, once you get out you realize college doesn't help much. Considering the general failure to educate, one could even consider much of higher education tantamount to fraud.

Jeff writes:

Is it possible rising costs affect students' answers? You really can't tell your family members you want their financial support for 4 years or so while you spend 60k or more in order to "develop a meaningful philosophy of life" or "promote racial understanding" or whatever. Most rational people would balk. Students probably then learn that it's okay to admit that they're merely after a better paying gig, rather than trying to dress up their academic endeavors in noble-sounding rhetoric about healing the world and blah blah blah. The price tag these days probably has a way of focusing people's attention on the monetary returns to education to a greater extent than, say, 30 or 40 years ago. Parents and students alike.

Michael writes:

I agree with August - perhaps it is not social desirability bias, but "Parent desirability bias" - most parents are very quick to remind their newly minted college student that the end goal is a job. When the student says they are looking at majors A and B, the parent's first question (if it is not obvious) would be what job can you get with that degree? Notice how there was no option for "because my parents told me to" or "everyone was doing it" - most students starting off have no clue what their life will be like in 5 to 6 years, especially outside of the more selective colleges.

Anon writes:


As someone without a college degree, I can tell you that all those reasons they've been told to get a college degree are approximately true.

College isn't much about education. A good education is freely available to anyone who is interested. How many people would continue paying thousands of dollars of tuition to attend one of Professor Caplan's courses if they didn't receive an officially recognised credential at the end? I bet none (Sorry Bryan). People aren't buying an education, they're buying credentials. It's just for that credential to be a meaningful signal of something other than their bank balance (or their parents' bank balance), they have to pay for that credential with more than just money, but rather time, patience, diligence, hard work, and the foregone earnings and pleasures which show they're serious about success.

Anyway, it would be unsurprising to me that students today are more motivated by narrow self-interest than in the past, simply because a much higher proportion of people are going to college. The proportion of people who want 'to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas' in the general population probably hasn't changed much, and almost all of them were already going to college anyway. Therefore, to get more people going to college, you're inevitably going to have to draw them from the proportion of people who aren't interested in ideas for their own sake. No doubt the proliferation of occupational licensing laws has also went some way to providing such people with an incentive to go to college.

Chris Hallquist writes:

I don't find anything "ugly" about the career-based answer or going to college. Lots of jobs in our society more or less require a college degree, or are at least much harder to get without one. *Of course* that's going to be a major reason students have for going to college.

This is only shocking to college professors because either (1) they tend to have been the weirdos who really liked college enough to have decided to stay there for life or (2) hard to devote your life to something, especially something as low-paying as teaching college often is, without telling yourself a ridiculously idealistic story about why you're doing it.

Dave Anthony writes:

"since corporations are trying to externalize all their costs with regard to finding competent people onto the rest of society"

I don't understand what this sentence means.

RPLong writes:
Yes, you could object, "Over half the students also care deeply about getting a 'general education and appreciation of ideas.'" But remember Social Desirability Bias. Saying you're in college for the money sounds bad. Saying you're in college for the ideas sounds good. Yet the ugly answer has generally been more popular. If you make even a moderate adjustment for Social Desirability Bias, crude self-interest wins by a landslide.

Wait, is that allowed? Is it fair to dismiss those responses that are inconsistent with your theory as bias without actually establishing that fact empirically?

I think Jeff makes a good point, and it is an especially good one when I consider the fuller breakdown of responses. Clearly students were allowed to select multiple responses. It's not surprising that, in a tough job market, money would rise in stated importance. But it still might be a student's "5th stated reason." What if their most important reason was to "make Mama proud," no matter what the economy was like. It's easy to dismiss that as bias, but on the off-chance the students are telling the truth, then that makes Jeff's point all the stronger.

August writes:

Ah, that should read competent people to hire.

They don't want to do training, and when they go to government, they don't say, "hey, get out of the way and let us do I.Q. tests and other measures that will let us see who we can invest in as long term employees with high potential. Instead they go in with the government to do these silly initiatives, like the recent push for more STEM grads. Part of the push is specifically aimed at girls, who don't want to be STEM. That's our tax money going down the drain, and then there's the time and energy people take trying to chase down this money.

Thats the externalization of costs- to the taxpayer and to the individual actually needing a job. It doesn't work, especially with HR departments functioning more as a CYA departments and a cancer on the profit making part of the business.

Robb writes:

The other commenters bring up good points. The traditional narrative that millenials are so selfish, etc., (not that I think Bryan is suggesting it) is trash. It takes only a moment's reflection to see through. What? Are we suggesting that personality traits with strong genetic correlates have somehow shifted drastically after one generation?

No, I didn't think so. So then you're lead to thinking about the environment. Should we blame parents, media, economics? None of those are particularly interesting.

But I wonder: what is it that is off-putting about unabashed, economic materialism? About greed? I mean, sure, we live in a society strongly influenced by Christian and Puritan ideals, so maybe that's it. But is there something innate about greed that makes it repugnant? Maybe it's the (seemingly?) zero-sumness of the thing. You have to screw someone else to get ahead, that sort of thing. Or maybe greedy people are just not too friendly. Or is it that greedy people will experience more temptation to break the rules? Or perhaps the social faux pas is what's alarming about it. They haven't internalized social norms.

Or perhaps something else entirely.

Jonah Sinick writes:

My experience observation has been that at least in the case of required math classes, for the most part college students don't enjoy them or get much out of them. So yes, I'm not surprised to see financial motivation ahead of most items on the list, and would guess that social desirability bias hides the extent of the difference.

Something that does surprise me is that "helping others in difficulty" ranks so high on the list. It's an update in the direction of college students being open to giving substantial weight to social value produced in making a career choice (social desirability bias not withstanding).

Jeff writes:
But I wonder: what is it that is off-putting about unabashed, economic materialism?

I wondered about this, too. I'm sure it's more fun to teach students who genuinely love learning economics for its own sake, but why anyone would be surprised to learn that most students are more interested in furthering their own interests by getting an education is a bit baffling, nor do I don't understand why this is "greed." What's so awful about wanting a better job?

I also wonder if professors in other disciplines that are less remunerative have the same complaints. Example: do philosophy professors at GMU encounter fewer careerist students, since philosophy degrees don't have the same market value as economics degrees? How about in the Women and Gender Studies department at GMU?

MingoV writes:
Like most professors, I'm not fond of careerist students. I prefer to teach classes full of kids who love ideas for their own sake.
If you believe that your economics students are not highly interested in a well-paid job after graduation, then you are too blinkered to be teaching. The only people I've met who don't care about money but claim they love ideas for their own sake are those with degrees who learned little while obtaining them and rationalize their failure to get a good-paying job with the claim "I love ideas more than money."

A professor should hope for students who want to succeed financially. Succeeding in professional fields usually requires learning during school and continual learning after. I'm a pathologist (and former associate professor). One of the most appealing aspects of pathology is that it demands continual learning and it rewards continual learning with better paying jobs and with prestige. Economics seems to have the same features, so looking down on students who want to earn more and gain more prestige is counterproductive.

I was on a med school admission committee. If an applicant said his primary purpose for coming to med school was that he liked the ideas of learning how the body works and how to fix it, I'd have recommend rejection. We wanted students who would learn medicine because its an important field to master and apply. Applicants who say they want to be well off financially and be an authority in their field are more likely to be accepted because they are honest about money and because the motive to be an authority in their field means they're more likely to work hard to master the vast amount of knowledge in medicine.

Seth writes:

1. Social norms.
2. Absorption of trade training into colleges to get gov't subsidies.

Tom West writes:

This feels a little "gotcha" to me.

Students who fail to make economic considerations their primary concern in their education are subject to merciless scorn in the comments here, yet Bryan seems to be at least obliquely criticizing the same behaviour by equating it with greed.

I'll admit to being deathly curious as to how Bryan would advise his own kids.

Greed? Pursue their interests? Or like most parents, nudge them towards something it seems like they enjoy something that's also at least somewhat economically rewarding.

Enial Cattesi writes:
Like most professors, I'm not fond of careerist students. I prefer to teach classes full of kids who love ideas for their own sake.

Professors have an overinflated sense of themselves. And when it turns out they are valued just as the gym instructor, name calling such as materialistic and greedy students is the norm. Such class!

James writes:

Where is the debate here?? Student "Freely confess" that they go to college to make more money!?! Of course!!! Is this an Onion article??? I'm sorry we can't all be life long students and then get paid to teach other life long students. The world actually needs professionals to make society function outside of academia. How elitist can you be??? Is anyone taking this seriously?

Hugh writes:
Economists who assume that college attendance is driven by students' greed are largely correct.

With college fees as high as they are today, students need to believe that they will get higher paying jobs - or the IRR on this 4 year project won't look good.

Bryan might also like to do a post on the producers - does greed play a role in generating these ever inflating tuition fees?

JKB writes:

When is the last time a college made a sales pitch to prospective students promoting the interest in ideas? Without any mention of potential for a good job or higher earnings?

But instead of asking students look at actions. First off, how many graduates lament they have this credential but can't find a job? That implies they thought their course of study would improve their employment prospects. How many make the hilarious lament that college students are "underemployed". If they studied for the "interest in ideas", how can they be underemployed? If they were, that implies some expectation that the college degree improves their level of employability that has not been met by the market.

But a real test would be to offer after say 5-10 years to permit the discharge of student loan debt upon surrendering the credential purchased with that debt. The individual can keep all the "education" they received but the credential, transcripts, etc. would be replace with a simple report of periods of attendance.

How many would go for that? Free from the debt, but they can't trade on the credential?

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