Why Is College Important? The Top Reasons According to Students

One in five students say attending college allows them to pursue their passion. Other popular reasons include life improvement, income, and self-discovery.
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Published on September 8, 2022
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  • Students' top reasons for attending college were to pursue a passion, improve their lives, and boost their incomes.
  • One in five said their most important reason to attend college was to pursue a passion.
  • First-generation college students place greater importance on keeping up with peers and experiencing life in a new place.
  • BIPOC students are more aware of the impact attending college has on socioeconomic status.

In the past thirty years, college tuition has more than doubled. Meanwhile, the ROI of a college education is up for debate. But new data shows that students still believe in the intrinsic value of going to college.

BestColleges surveyed nearly 1,000 current and prospective undergraduate and graduate students. We asked them to rank the importance of different reasons for attending college.

The most popular reason students reported was to pursue a passion. They also ranked quality-of-life improvements in their top three reasons, like creating a better life for themselves or their families and improving their income or career prospects.

Students were generally less likely to attend college to keep up with their peers, acquire knowledge for personal enrichment, or experience campus life. Experiencing campus life may be less popular now especially. In a different BestColleges survey, 40% of current students said campuses should stay closed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

First-Generation Students Use College to Keep Up

Overall, students report that they aren't going to college to keep up with their peers. About a quarter of students (24%) said their least important reason for going to college is because they want to keep up with their peers. More than half (51%) listed the option in their bottom three reasons for attending college.

However, some first-generation college students disagreed. First-generation students were almost twice as likely as students who were not first-generation to say keeping up with peers was their top reason for attending college. A quarter of them listed the option in their top three reasons.

First-generation college students often face unique challenges in higher education, from imposter syndrome to guilt over leaving home. But first-generation students also believe there's value in moving away for college.

It was more important for first-generation students to attend college in order to live in a new place than students whose parents had gone to college. Nearly one-third (32%) of first-generation students said living in a new place was a top-three reason to attend college compared to just 19% of non-first-generation students.

College and Socioeconomic Status for BIPOC Students

Going to college is typically associated with higher earnings. It also helps students boost their overall social, economic, or cultural status —a more obvious reality to students of color.

Students who identified as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color (BIPOC) placed greater importance than white students on attending college to enhance their socioeconomic status. BIPOC students were 33% more likely than white students to rank "enhance my social, cultural, or economic status" as their top reason for attending school.

Recent research supports the notion that greater equity in higher education could decrease racial and ethnic wealth gaps. Other reports have found that while a college degree boosts students' societal status, there's a catch: College access too often depends on parents' income.

College Affordability Matters

Is college important to success? That depends on how you define success. Current and future students believe there are many important reasons to attend college — from monetary gain to personal fulfillment.

Whatever the benefits of college, the high price of tuition prevents many from entry, especially BIPOC students. Higher education policies that expand college grant programs, fund HBCUs, and forgive student loan debt can help advance more equitable access to higher education.


The survey was conducted from July 7-13, 2022. Student respondents were fielded by Lucid LLC. Survey participants included 1,000 respondents nationwide who were currently enrolled in or planning to enroll in an undergraduate or graduate degree program at a college or university in the next 12 months. Respondents were 16-65 years of age and currently pursuing or planning to pursue an associate, bachelor's, master's, doctoral, or professional degree. The respondents for the survey were screened by various quality checks, including systems like Relevant ID, and responses were manually reviewed to ensure consistency and accuracy.