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.
portrait of Lyss Welding
Lyss Welding
Read Full Bio

Editor & Writer

Lyss Welding is a higher education analyst and data writer for BestColleges who specializes in translating massive data sets and finding statistics that matter to students. Lyss has worked in academic research, curriculum design, and program evaluati...
portrait of Evan Castillo
Evan Castillo
Read Full Bio

Editor & Writer

Evan Castillo is an associate writer on BestColleges News and wrote for the Daily Tar Heel during his time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's covered topics ranging from climate change to general higher education news, and he is...
Updated on July 11, 2023
Edited by
portrait of Reece Johnson
Reece Johnson
Read Full Bio

Editor & Writer

Reece Johnson is the editorial director for news and data. He writes about the future of work and higher education, student political activism, and expanding educational opportunities. Reece holds a master's degree from Columbia University and a bach...
Learn more about our editorial process
Marko Geber / DigitalVision / Getty Images

  • 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.

In 2022, 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.

Why Is College Important?

Students were generally less likely to attend college to keep up with their peers, acquire knowledge for personal enrichment, or experience campus life. However, some reasons were more popular for certain student populations such as BIPOC and first-generation college students.

Why College Is Important

To Pursue a Passion

"Pursuing a passion" topped students' lists of why college is important. One in five said it was their most important reason to attend college. Nearly half (49%) ranked it among their top three reasons for attending college.

Additionally, a 2021 BestColleges survey showed that 83% of college students believe you should love what you study. In that survey, students ranked "pursuing a passion" as the second most popular reason for choosing their major.

While pursuing a passion is important, it can also feel like a luxury — especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2023 ACT survey found that the pandemic influenced high school students' college and career goals. While some students chose to attend college to pursue new passions, many prioritized job security and high-paying jobs.

To Create a Better Life

Nineteen percent of students in our survey said college was important to create a better life for themselves or for their families. This reason was equally important to undergraduate and graduate students, suggesting that students believe bachelor's and advanced degrees alike can help them build a better life.

National data backs up positive outcomes for college graduates. According to a 2020 Federal Reserve report, the average net worth of a college graduate was more than twice that of someone with a high school diploma between 2016 and 2019.

To Improve Income or Career Prospects

Students ranked "improving income or career prospects" third among the top reasons for attending college. Fifteen percent ranked it as the number one reason, and almost half (45%) said it was in their top three.

The notion that a college degree can boost your income is backed by data. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, going to college is associated with higher earnings and lower unemployment.

And despite employers increasingly dropping degree requirements in hiring, a 2023 Workday report has found that degree-holders tend to earn more than those without a degree working in the same jobs.

To Enhance Social, Cultural, or Economic Status

Only 8% of students said college was important to them to enhance their social, cultural, or economic status. Just one-quarter of respondents ranked this choice among their top three reasons for attending college.

However, 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. But a 2020 Brookings report points out that there's a catch: College access too often depends on parents' income.

To Keep Up With Peers

About one-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.

For reference, about 63% of high school graduates went to college in 2020. That's actually down substantially from 2009's record college enrollment rate of 70%.

However, 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. One-quarter of respondents listed the option in their top three reasons.

First-generation college students often face unique challenges in higher education, including imposter syndrome and 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 for 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 Is Important — So Is Affordability

Students agree: Going to college can be an incredibly rewarding experience. It can bring on benefits beyond those you can quantify.

At the same time, the extraordinary costs associated with attending and even applying to college — and taking on student loan debt — prevent many from entry.

Higher education policies that expand college grant programs, close the racial wealth gap, 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.