Generational Differences in Motivation to Attend College

John Michael Cote, University of South Carolina


The National Center for Education Statistics recently released a report indicating that the amount of full-time students attending college has increased by 45 percent over the past ten years. While many reasons assist in explaining this increase in college attendance, this study explored the differences in motivations for attending college amongst generations. This quantitative study used secondary data collected by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) Freshman survey to explore the differences in reasons for attending college amongst the Baby Boomer, Generation X, and Millennial generations and predict reasons that may be important to future generations of college students. These reasons were then aligned with motivation theories based on the researchers interpretation in order to understand the types of motivation students utilize when deciding to attend college. A two-way repeated measures ANOVA suggested that there is a statistically significant difference in the reasons why the Baby Boomer, Generation X, and Millennial generations wanted to attend college. After aligning each reason with the appropriate motivation theory, it was found that each generation may be motivated to attend college in similar ways. All three generations attended college because of their need to achieve (achievement theory) and the internal rewards (i.e. increase in knowledge, learning about subjects that interest them) that college provides (drive theory). Further, a linear regression suggested that future generations may attend college for similar reasons as past and present generations and will be motivated in the same way, both through their need for achievement and internal rewards.