Ailts: Students today are more motivated by money and less by learning

Our generation’s diminishing intrinsic motivation might cause us unhappiness down the road.

by Ellen Ailts

It seems that students today are more motivated than ever by a potential paycheck. At least, that’s what a paper put forth by psychologists Jean Twenge and Kristin Donnelly suggests. 

The study, published by the British Psychological Society, synthesized surveys conducted between 1971 and 2014, in which over 8 million students were asked about their reasons for enrolling in universities. Students across generations, born between 1944 and 1994, answered questions regarding how much they valued outcomes of their college education, like “to be able to make more money” or “to learn about things that interest me.” 55 percent of baby boomers felt that making money was important, versus 71 percent of millennials. Millennials were generally more likely to say they were extrinsically motivated, less likely to agree that they were in college to “learn about things that interest me.” Researchers said their findings supported observations that today’s students are more likely to have a “consumer mentality” than previous generations were. The trends in extrinsic motivation began to increase among Gen Xers in the ‘90s; more motivated by money, less by learning.

But it seems likely these trends are linked to trends in the cost of college itself. In 1960, median tuition at private colleges was about $4,000 in today’s money, and in 1970, it was $3,015 for tuition at public institutions. Today, the average cost of a year at a public university is $20,000 (and rising) in-state, and $34,220 for out-of-state students — at private schools, tuition can be twice as high. Today’s young people simply don’t have the luxury of learning for learning’s sake. They have to think about the bottom line, or else drown in student debt before even they have a chance to get on their feet. 

We’ve also seen trends in depression, anxiety and various mental health issues increase drastically over the years. A paper from Jean Twenge shows that teenagers the 2010s were twice as likely to seek professional help for mental health issues than those in the 1980s, with issues of poor recall abilities and trouble sleeping on the rise when compared to their peers in the ‘80s. Student health centers are in higher demand, with college freshman who report being depressed increasing rapidly from even 2010 until the present. 

The fact that students don’t value their own interests as highly cannot help the mental health crisis that is occurring in our country. The rising prevalence of money-motivation can only lead to unhappiness, because, as we all learn at some point, money cannot magically transform a person into someone who is happy or fulfilled — in fact, it often leads to never feeling as though you have enough money, enough things, because material goods cannot fill the fundamental sense of lacking that is inherent to the human condition. It’s a truth that feels like a platitude at this point, but it’s the truth nonetheless: if you seek happiness and fulfillment, that can only be achieved by money to a very limited extent. But college students today find themselves in yet another strange paradox of modernity, being motivated to go to college to make money, not in small part because they have to repay the debts of their education. 

It isn’t enough to simply say “value your interests, follow your dreams,” because truthfully, most of us can’t afford to. However, we should still keep those old platitudes in mind; in the long run, a bigger house or nicer car won’t fulfill you like your interests and your knowledge will. And who knows, they might even make you some money.