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Why Students Go to College Matters to Their Success

For many young people today, going to college is expected. Having some postsecondary training is almost a prerequisite for entering the middle class.

When researchers dig a little deeper and ask students exactly why they want to pursue higher education, though, they discover a variety of answers about motivation that can help colleges better support students to completion.

A new study by University of Rochester researchers examines the reasons for attending college and the impact that motivation can have on academic outcomes. It found that students are more likely to earn higher grades and get a degree if enrolling was motivated by intrinsic needs for autonomy and competence.

While it is important for students to build social connections on campus if they are to persist, when students placed a high priority on meeting and interacting with peers they were not as likely to succeed. "Students who emphasized relationships with peers as their motivation for attending college may have done so at the expense of the time they devoted to academics," according to the study. The researchers reported this was especially true for male students. When counselors realize this, they can encourage a balance of work and socializing, the student suggests.

Just how motivation impacts students varies among socioeconomic groups. Autonomy was more important to the success of higher socioeconomic status students than to that of lower SES students. Low-income students were more likely to seek a college degree to improve their financial situation than their wealthier counterparts. The research suggests advisers who are aware of this could reinforce the economic benefit of good performance in school when working with these students.

The study also indicates that going to college to in hopes of forming relationships with faculty and staff was positively associated with a higher GPA.

The researchers suggest that these findings have important implications for student and academic affairs practices. For instance, students who are going to college in large part to connect with faculty and staff can be given strategies for forming and maintaining those relationships when counselors are aware.

To reach these conclusions, researchers analyzed web-based surveys of 2,520 students at a large, unnamed community college and an unnamed liberal arts college located in a rural area in the Northeast.

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