A psychological study asks - 
'Why pursue an education at Colgate' 

by Regina Conti 
assistant professor of psychology 

This was the question that I posed to incoming first-year students in the summer of 1996 as part of my research on academic motivation and college adjustment. 

I was curious to learn how students' thoughts during the college decision-making process influence their experiences once they arrive on campus. Some students focus on specific criteria: "I needed to attend a school with a decent tennis team and a strong chemistry department." Others take a more intuitive approach: "When I visited I immediately felt comfortable. I knew that I would fit in here." 

Whether they consider the course offerings, the social atmosphere, the extracurricular opportunities, or the living accommodations, students are faced with a complicated task when deciding between Colgate and other available options. To learn more about how students' approach to this task affected their experiences during their first year at Colgate, I asked students to complete psychological inventories on four separate occasions, I asked students' closest friends to report their observations, and I arranged personal interviews with students and their friends. 

At the outset, I suspected that devoting considerable time and effort to the college decision would give students a motivational advantage. While thinking through their decisions, students become aware of the possibilities and challenges that college life presents. In doing so they begin the process of formulating goals and preparing themselves to meet those goals. A student who grew up in California described wanting to experience the East Coast and life far away from her parents. An important goal for her was learning to make decisions independently. 

Although many students think ahead and begin to develop long-term goals, not all think carefully about what they want to get out of college before they arrive on campus. Several students admitted that they had only a vague idea of what Colgate had to offer them. These students had a hard time filling out my initial questionnaire because they hadn't reflected much while deciding on a college; they weren't sure of what their goals were. 

Sometimes, students don't give much thought to the college decision-making process because their parents make the decision for them. One student commented, "It was really more my dad's decision than mine. He was sure this place would be perfect for me." For many students, their parents' expectations are an important motivating force. 

Other students decide what is important to them more independently. A student whose parents were pushing her to attend a larger university, for example, had decided on Colgate instead. She feels her choice was the right one - well worth the struggle. Another student described his parents as supporting his decision to attend Colgate. Even though his parents were happy about his decision, he felt that he made the decision based on his own interests and aspirations, rather than because of pressure from them. The experiences that students have as they work through their decisions carry over to influence their adjustment during the first year at college. 

Happiness in college depends on success in several areas. Of course, academic performance and satisfaction with the intellectual environment on campus was one important area. The learning that takes place in the classroom is weighted heavily in students' assessments of their college experiences. The learning that takes place informally can also be crucial, however. Most students invest a great deal of energy into their friendships, and are concerned about the quality of their social lives. Emotional adjustment is important as well. Emotionally well-adjusted students cope better with the stresses of living independently and experience less homesickness. 

Surely, each area of adjustment impacts the others. At the same time, each area may have a particular dynamic in relation to the college decision-making process. Students may feel pressured by parents to do well academically, but relatively free to decide how to approach their social lives. Because academics is an area where pressure is common and accomplishment is especially important, students' motivation toward their schoolwork can have an enormous effect on their college experiences. 

Academic motivation comes naturally for certain students. They seem to be driven by a sincere interest in their courses; they derive enjoyment and personal satisfaction from the work that they do. In contrast are students who are less curious, but strongly motivated to earn high grades and meet the expectations set by their teachers. These students learn their course material mainly in order to perform well on exams and other assignments. The first type of student is said to possess intrinsic motivation: the motivation to engage in work primarily for its own sake, because it is engaging and in some way satisfying. The contrasting concern with requirements and grades characterizes extrinsic motivation: the motivation to work for some reward that is separate from the task itself. 

Intrinsically motivated students tend to seek challenges and are persistent and creative in devising ways to meet those challenges. Extrinsically motivated students, on the other hand, are more likely to feel pressured and tense in the face of difficult work, and have more trouble maintaining their motivation. 

Both types of students are highly invested in their courses, but the intrinsically motivated student is invested more genuinely in the work itself, while the extrinsically motivated student is primarily concerned with the rewards that follow from learning the course material. A student's motivational focus toward college coursework begins to form as early as when the student begins to think about attending college, and the process of deciding which college to attend influences the level of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that later fuels academic efforts. 

In sum, I found that students' who were actively engaged in planning for college during the final year of high school, and who felt autonomous in their efforts, were better able to cope with the challenges that Colgate presented to them. Students who gave careful thought to what they wanted from a college performed better academically. Moreover, they were more satisfied with their courses and showed higher levels of intrinsic motivation. Students who felt pressured by parental expectations had more trouble adjusting emotionally. In their courses, they were more extrinsically motivated, and less intrinsically motivated. 

So why pursue a college education at Colgate? There are so many good reasons - from the stimulating academic program, to the varied and challenging extracurricular opportunities and the friendly campus atmosphere. 

By listening to students' reasons, I have learned that it is not the reasons themselves, but the process of thinking about them that is important. Having a clear answer to my question, especially a thoughtful and personally meaningful answer, is the key to gaining all that a person can from an education at Colgate. 

Author's note: I am grateful to Paula Crivelli '97, Amy Grennan '97, Bethany Klynn '97, Carla Maine '98, Michelle Park '98, Katharine Pitula '98, Kelly Rourke '99, Danielle Schade '97, Jill Smith '98 and Eliza Whoriskey '98 for their contributions to the research.