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Why men vs. women decide to go to college: intellectual curiosity, money, marriage

Yesterday I wrote about some recently released survey data showing why incoming college freshmen say they decided to go to college. The responses included things like “to be able to get a better job” and “to make me a more cultured person.” Respondents could choose multiple options, but “better job” got the highest share of freshmen saying it was “very important” to their decision to enroll.

Interestingly, men and women show very different trends in their emphasis on many of these collegiate objectives.

Women seem to profess much more intellectual curiosity than men do. At least, women have always been more likely than men to say that intellectual and cultural goals (“to learn more about things that interest me,” “to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas,” “to make me a more cultured person”) were a very important factor in their decision to go to college. Here are the data:

The story gets a little more complicated when you look at more practical objectives. Men started out placing more emphasis on career-related goals than women did, but in more recent years the gaps between the two genders have either narrowed or reversed themselves.

For example, when the survey first asked college freshmen about whether access to a “better job” was a consideration in their decision to go to college, in 1971, men were more likely than women to say it was “very important.” In the years since — perhaps partly because the composition of respondents has changed, and partly because the role of college in our society has changed — men’s and women’s responses have tracked each other pretty closely.

And when it comes to grad school plans, men started out more likely to say preparing for a graduate or professional degree was a “very important” reason to go to college, and then women caught up and more than surpassed them:

Men have always been more likely than women to say that the opportunity to make more money was a key reason for going to college, but the gap between the two has narrowed over the years:

This finding is echoed in responses to a similar question the Freshman Survey asks about whether certain life objectives are important to them more generally. Asked about “the importance to you personally” of “being very well off financially,” men were historically much more likely to say this was “essential” or “very important,” but women have caught up:

I can think of at least one other related rationale for college-going that I wish the survey has asked about: finding a spouse.

I mention this not because traditionalists such as “Princeton Mom” have argued that husband-hunting should be a key objective for college women while they’re still enrolled in school, but because people who ultimately graduate from college end up being much more likely to eventually get married than do their counterparts without higher education. Conditional on being married, they also tend to pair up with more educated, higher-earning spouses, since college grads tend to marry other college grads.

In fact, one of the biggest financial returns to post secondary schooling is arguably this greater likelihood of being married to another college-educated earner. As a result, some economic researchers at Columbia and Tel Aviv University have suggested that “the marriage market has played an important role in the demand for higher education in the recent decades,” particularly among women. I don’t have a great sense, though, of whether this so-called “marital college premium” is even on the radar screen of most 18-year-olds considering whether to go to college, let alone whether it’s a major factor in their decision to enroll.