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Are Most College Students Primarily Self-Interested and Materialistic? Critical Conversations #30

Student Success Civic Engagement Assessment, Evaluation, and Research Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division Faculty Senior Level
August 15, 2022 Anne Colby

JCC Connexions, Vol. 8, No. 3, August 2022

In "What College Students Are After and Why" (Journal of College & Character, vol. 23, no. 3, August 2022), Anne Colby, 
Heather Malin, and Emily Morton asked 1,500 students from 11 U.S. colleges to write about their goals, the reasons their goals were important, and how they were pursuing those goals

Anne responds to questions posed by Co-editor Jon Dalton relating to their research:

1. Much has been written about the self-interested and materialistic values of today’s college students.  Did your research find these self-advancement values to be prevalent among the students you studied? 

Yes and no. Our research found that, understandably, college students care about preparing for their careers, achieving financial security, and enjoying their lives. But they also aspire toward social contribution and the wellbeing of other people and toward various aspects of authentic wellbeing, including meaning in life and strong relationships.

Our survey of more than 1500 students at 11 US colleges and universities asked students to rate the importance of 20 life goals and to write briefly about their own most important goals, why those goals were important to them, and what, if anything, they were doing to pursue those goals. A few highlights of respondents’ life goals ratings illustrate the multi-faceted nature of students’ most highly rated goals:

  • Five of the 20 life goal items were rated as very important or essential by at least 80% of our respondents. These items included two referring to work—have a successful career (85%) but also do work that is meaningful (87%) and three that refer to positive relationships, including take care of people I’m close to (88%).
  • Between 70 and 80% rated very highly have a lot of fun (74%) but also help people in need (73%).
  • Just under two-thirds of respondents aspired to be very well off financially (64.7%) but almost as many strongly endorsed goals of contributing to solving problems in society or the environment (62.8%).

The open-text write-in responses are even more revealing, because, for these, students describe their most important goals in their own words. When we coded the content of their most central goals, we learned that

  •  The most common type of goal respondents described (38%) expressed an aspiration to contribute to something larger than self-advancement, what we call contribution beyond-the-self, by helping to address a particular social issue or problem they care about, contribute to a field, or give back/make the world a better place in a more general sense.
  • The second most prevalent goal category was Meaning/self-actualization, with 35% of entries receiving this code. These goals refer to aspirations toward personal growth, fulfillment, and meaning in life.
  • A third category, referring to vocational achievement goals, was present in a quarter of the sample. Many of these responses revealed a pairing of aspirations toward vocational achievement and contribution beyond-the-self.
  • In contrast with these highly prevalent aspirations toward contribution, meaning, and professional expertise, goals focused on material success and credentialing were cited much less often (10% and 7% respectively).

These two windows on what college students are after reveal the inclusiveness of their aspirations. More than half want to pursue both personal goals and goals of contribution to something larger. Many hope to combine these into an integrated vision for their education and their lives.

2. You suggest that synergies need to be created between students’ self-interested goals and their larger moral and civic commitments so that both contribute to lasting wellbeing. What do you mean by this?

In an earlier Journal of College and Character article (Colby, 2020), I proposed that higher education could benefit from orienting toward two powerfully unifying constructs: flourishing (or wellbeing) and purpose, which is an essential element of flourishing. The idea of flourishing or deep (eudaimonic) wellbeing (Ryan & Deci, 2001; Ryff, 2016) asks what it means to have a well-lived life, to achieve the best that is within us. Purpose, as we define it, is a stable, active commitment to goals that are meaningful to the self and aim to contribute to something larger than or beyond the self. We believe that adopting full flourishing and purpose as central aims of higher education can usefully reframe “return on investment” by deepening what it means to invest and what the many returns on those investments can be.

The research reported in our current article, “What College Students Are After and Why?,” is part of our larger study of purpose development during college. The study centers on this topic because prior research evidence is strong that purpose is highly beneficial not only for the common good but for purposeful individuals themselves. It is associated with academic and vocational success, resilience, and psychological and physical health throughout life (Bronk, 2013; Malin et al., 2017; Morton et al., 2018). For that reason, purpose has the potential to bring self-related, personal concerns and other-focused concerns together into a harmonious whole.

3. Can you provide some examples of how colleges and universities can create such integrative and synergistic approaches?

  • Higher education offers students many curricular opportunities to reflect on the meaning of individual and collective human flourishing and to explore the implications for their own lives. Some of these are direct and explicit, including popular courses at Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and elsewhere (Burnett & Evans, 2016; Schrum, 2020). These courses supplement topics in traditional disciplines that address questions about what human flourishing means, how it connects with beyond-the-self contribution, and how human flourishing has been supported and obstructed throughout history.
  •  Our data also provide support for efforts to enrich or reshape student services and programs around the constructs of purpose and well-being. This involves broadening mental health and counseling services to address positive well-being in a multi-faceted way rather than focusing exclusively on academic and mental health problems (Bringing Theory to Practice, 2013; Brocato, et al., 2018).
  • Similarly, career services can better contribute to student development by providing not only knowledge and skills that assist career placement but also coaching, events, and other opportunities to think about life direction, purpose, and meaningful work. Stanford University, for example, has renamed its career center to reflect this broader mission. The program’s name is now BEAM – Bridging Education, Ambition, and Meaningful Work.
  • Academic and other advising, student organizations and clubs, internships, and civic engagement programs offer a wealth of other opportunities for students to explore their own emerging strengths and interests, their growing understanding of what is important to them, and how best to move toward their most valued and meaningful goals. The more intentional these programs are in connecting students with ways to grow and contribute in the particular ways that are most meaningful to them, the more effective the programming can be.


Brocato, N., Isler, M. R., Hix, L., Pryor, J. H., & Rue, P. (2018). Turning wellbeing data into effective programming/NASPA. Retrieved from http://wp-cdn.aws.wfu.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/320/2018/01/08031406/WFU-NASPA-2018-Turning-wellbeing-data-into-effective-programming-03-05-18.pdf

Bringing theory to practice: The well-being and flourishing of students (2013). Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/CLDE/BTtoPWellbeingInitiative.pdf

Bronk, K. C. (2013). Purpose in life: A component of optimal youth development. Springer.

Burnett, B. & Evans, D. (2016). Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Colby, A. (2020). Purpose as a unifying goal of higher education. Journal of College and Character, 21(1), 21-29. https://doi.org/10.1080/2194587X.2019.1696829

Malin, H., Liauw, I., and Damon, W. (2017). Purpose and character development in early adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 46(6), 1200-1215. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-017-0642-3

Morton, E., Colby, A., Bundick, M., & Remington, K. (2018). Hiding in plain sight: Older U.S. purpose exemplars. Journal of Positive Psychology, 14(5) 614-624. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2018.1510022

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 141-166. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.141

Ryff, C. (2016). Eudaimonic Well-being and education: Probing the connections. In D. W.  Harward (Ed.), Well-being and higher education: A strategy for change and the realization of education’s greater purposes, (pp 37-48).

Schrum, J. (2020, June 23). A father learns the true reward of taking a free online happiness course with his son. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/a-father-learns-the-true-reward-of-taking-a-free-online-happiness-course-with-his-son/2020/06/22/d3fd5c76-b4b5-11ea-a8da-693df3d7674a_story.html