Why do people go to university?

One theory as to why over-education can be bad for you is that people form expectations of life after study that are not subsequently met. But this assumes that people do in fact expect higher education to pay off in the labour market. We can investigate this by looking at surveys on reasons for wanting to go to university.

In 1994, a survey of year 10 to 12 school children planning to go to university found, in a open-ended question, that 86% gave answers relating to their career prospects. Some gave answers consistent with careers not being paramount (‘to be better educated’, 15%; ‘interesting courses’, 3%), but as they could give multiple responses some may also have had vocational rationales for study.

A 1997 ABS survey of people actually enrolled in higher education found that 96% gave a vocational reason. Broken down by field of study, the proportions ranged from 90% in ‘society and culture’ (an annoying ABS category that includes the humanities, social sciences, fine arts and, for some unknown reason, law) to 100% in architecture and education.

A 1999 survey of first-year students, which asked about how important various reasons for enrolling were, found the following ‘important’ ratings: ‘studying in a field that really interests me’, 96%; ‘to improve my job prospects’, 86%; ‘developing talents and creative abilities’, 73%; ‘to get training for a specific job’, 74%; ‘expectations of my parents and family’, 23%; ‘few other opportunities because of the poor job market’, 18%; ‘being with my friends’, 14%.

In 2005, the ABS Education and Training Experience Survey found that 75% gave as their ‘main’ reason for their current study something related to work, and 19% nominated ‘interest or personal reasons’.
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