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Reasons for attending college affect students’ academic success, study finds

Warner Study on Motivation, Student Success Featured in Inside Higher Ed
Study is first to look at outcomes of students driven by relationship motivation

Students not performing well academically? Look no further—the answer may be in their motivation for attending college in the first place.

Researchers at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester found that student motivation for attending college is related to academic success. And, they uncovered unique relationships that exist between the different types of student motivation—as conceptualized by Self-Determination Theory (SDT)—and academic achievement and persistence.

Their study tracked the relationship between student motivation for attending college and the academic outcomes of 2,500 college students attending two different institutions—a two-year community college and a four-year liberal arts college—in the northeast. This was the first comprehensive study to examine these relationships using a large sample of college students across multiple institutions and to control for various student demographic variables, such as socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, and gender. Students completed a web-based survey, which included providing information about their backgrounds, their GPAs and intentions to persist, and scales assessing the three areas of intrinsic motivation outlined by SDT—the degree to which they attended college to fulfill needs for autonomy (to study areas of interest), competence (to test and challenge their abilities), or relatedness (to establish close, secure relationships with others).

Through their research, the team confirmed that students who attend college to fulfill needs for autonomy and competence, two core components of intrinsic motivation, tended to have higher grades and intentions to persist. The researchers also found, however, that student socioeconomic status affected these relationships. Choosing to go to college to fulfill the need for autonomy was slightly more important to the success of students of high socioeconomic status than low-income students, whose motivation may be more influenced by a need to improve their financial situation. This finding suggests that student affairs professionals should recognize that students from low-income households are likely to benefit not only from a system of student support that fosters intrinsic motivation, but also one that acknowledges their desire to improve their financial situation through academic success.

The findings also demonstrated that altruism—the motivation to attend college to be able to give back to one’s community—is a more powerful academic motivator for students of color than for white students. Students of color who were motivated to attend college to give back to their home communities showed an even greater intention to persist than did white students who indicated the same motivation for attending college, which is a finding that has important implications for supporting students of color. 

Additionally, the results shed new light on the academic outcomes of students who attend college to fulfill relatedness needs. Students who indicated a higher motivation to attend college to establish relationships with peers were more likely to have lower GPAs, and this had an even greater negative impact on males than females. Relationships with peers has long been established as positively associated with college success; yet, research also suggests that some students can become overly social with peers to the point this socialization can negatively impact academic achievement. These results may assist student affairs professionals in identifying students who may be at risk of becoming overly social at college and providing them with strategies for balancing their socializing with peers with their academics. 

The results also indicated that attending college to fulfill needs for strong relationships with faculty and staff was positively associated with students’ GPAs. While research has supported the need for colleges to develop programs to engage faculty with students, this finding also suggests that successful faculty/student relationships can also be attributed to student motivation for establishing these relationships. The results suggest that in addition to encouraging faculty to connect more with students, interventions designed to increase faculty/student relationships should also target motivating students to pursue these relationships.

The study, entitled “Do Reasons for Attending College Affect Academic Outcomes? A Test of a Motivational Model From a Self-Determination Theory Perspective,” is co-authored by Warner School Professors Douglas Guiffrida, Martin Lynch, and Andrew Wall and doctoral student Darlene Abel and appears in the March/April Journal of College Student Development