Higher Education Orientations: Assessing the Reasons for Attending College

By Tirza Willner, Yuliya Lipshits-Braziler, and Itamar Gati

An increasing number of young adults deliberate whether to attend college, whereas the number of enrolled students declines annually (Hope, 2018). This trend reflects the increasing prevalence of the question "why attend college." Higher education is critical for successful integration into the workforce (Grebennikov & Shah, 2012), contributing to many future benefits for the student. It influences individuals’ social mobility (Chetty et al., 2017), their economic and social opportunities (Owens et al., 2010), as well as their income (Grebennikov & Shah, 2012). Consequently, it is not surprising that many young adults view a college education as beneficial to their success (Norton & Martini, 2017). However, the perceived role of a college education varies among individuals. The goal of the Higher Education Orientation questionnaire (Willner et al., 2022) is to assess the purpose young adults seek in attending college. Understanding the purpose of higher education in one's life may assist career counselors and college academic advisors in helping students in their college-related decisions, such as whether to enroll and which college and major to select. Hence, the likelihood of the fit between students' motivations and their college experience is expected to increase with the involvement of the HEO in the process.

The Higher Education Orientations Questionnaire

The Higher Education Orientation (HEO) questionnaire aims to illuminate for the individual the various purposes behind college attendance. Specifically, it discerns the main reasons behind students’ consideration of college studies in the future or among those already enrolled: is it to acquire a profession, broaden one’s horizons and knowledge, expand one’s social network, acquire the prestige of an academic degree, respond to family pressure, or a combination of these reasons?

The HEO questionnaire maps the relative salience of five orientations toward higher education:

  1. Profession – viewing college studies as a means to acquire an occupation that facilitates integrating into the world of work. 
  2. Knowledge – attending college as a way of gaining knowledge and expanding horizons. 
  3. Social – attending college as an opportunity to meet new people and expand one's social network. 
  4. Prestige – viewing college as a means to acquire prestige and social status. 
  5. External – attending college to please significant people in one's life or to satisfy social expectations and pressure. 

The HEO is a free, anonymous, brief (5–7 minutes) online questionnaire comprising 25 statements, with each statement representing one of the five higher education orientations. Adolescents and young adults (aged 17 and above) can complete the HEO where they are asked to rate the degree to which each statement describes them on a 7-point scale. Immediately after completing the HEO, the individuals receive textual and graphic personalized feedback reflecting the relative salience of their orientations concerning higher education (see sample feedback). The reliabilities of the five HEO scales ranged between .78 – .85, and its concurrent validity was supported in a sample of 713 college applicants using the criteria of career decision-making difficulties, strategies for coping with career indecision, and career decision status. Specifically, Willner et al. (2022a) found two patterns of associations between the five HEO orientations and career decision-making paths. The orientations of Profession and Knowledge were associated with a more facilitative path and advanced career decision status. In contrast, the Social, Prestige, and External orientations were associated with a more inhibitive path and greater indecision. In addition, in a one-year follow-up study, the HEO predicted the likelihood to drop out, satisfaction with their chosen major, and students' GPA (Willner et al., 2022b).

Case Study

Anne is a 19-year-old from a mid-sized town in a southeast state. After a gap year where Anne worked in sales, followed by a lengthy backpacking trip across Europe, she has returned to her hometown and is deliberating whether to go to college, and if so, where, and to which undergraduate program to apply. For assistance with this critical decision, Anne approached the career center in the local four-year college. She met with Susan, the career professional, who suggested that she complete the HEO questionnaire. A few minutes later, Anne and Susan began to discuss the immediate feedback (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Anne’s HEO Graphic Feedback

Heo Case Study Figure 1


Susan highlighted to Anne that the feedback reflects her reasons for attending college in the first place. Based on the HEO feedback, Susan reflected to Anne her interest in acquiring knowledge and broadening her horizons, as well as her desire to expand her social network. Accordingly, they prepared a list of college programs that offer a variety of liberal arts programs. In addition, they discussed what a college experience means to Anne and what type of social environment would be right for her. Finally, Susan pointed out to Anne that her responses reflect moderate external pressure. Anne acknowledged that she is the oldest child, and her parents, who attended a two-year college, promised to support her if she chose to attend a four-year college.

HEO in Practice

The HEO can be used by school and career professionals to help the students and clients explore their purposes in seeking a college education and discuss their expectations for attending college. Following such a conversation, career professionals can assist their clients in identifying appropriate college programs that match their orientations. For example, for an individual who is profession-oriented, career services professionals could help find programs that are strongly linked to industry and employers, as well as internships and apprenticeships in their chosen field. In contrast, as in Anne’s case, an individual may seek programs that offer a relatively wide variety of courses that foster expanding their horizons and could subsequently facilitate choosing a major.

Free Assessment for Degree-seeking StudentsThe HEO is accessible for free at www.CDDQ.org. Post-secondary career services professionals can use it to empower students to ensure their chosen careers align with the purposes they prescribe to their degrees. Further information regarding the use of the HEO questionnaire for research or counseling can be obtained from Dr. Yuliya Lipshits-Braziler, yuliya.lipshits@mail.huji.ac.il.



Chetty, R., Friedman, J. N., Saez, E., Turner, N., & Yagan, D. (2017). Mobility report cards: The role of colleges in intergenerational mobility (Working Paper No.23618). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Grebennikov, L., & Shah, M. (2012). Investigating attrition trends in order to improve student retention. Quality Assurance in Education, 20(3), 223–236. https://doi.org/10.1108/09684881211240295

Hope, J. (2018). Spring undergrad enrollment down compared to the previous year. Enrollment Management Report, 22(5), 9. https://doi.org/10.1002/emt.30447

Norton, C., & Martini, T. (2017). Perceived benefits of an undergraduate degree. Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 8(1), Article 3. https://doi.org/10.5206/cjsotl-rcacea.2017.1.3

Owens, D., Lacey, K., Rawls, G., & Holbert-Quince, J. A. (2010). First-generation African American male college students: Implications for career counselors. Career Development Quarterly, 58(4), 291–300. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-0045.2010.tb00179.x

Willner, T., Lipshits-Braziler, Y., & Gati, I. (2022a). Construction and initial validation of the Higher Education Orientations questionnaire. Journal of Career Assessment. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F10690727221090621

Willner, T., Lipshits-Braziler, Y., & Gati, I. (2022b). The predictive validity of the Higher Education Orientations questionnaire. Unpublished manuscript.

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Tirza WillnerTirza Willner is a PhD candidate at the Seymour Fox School of Education, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Fellow of the Azrieli Foundation. She completed her BA in psychology and her MA in social psychology and conflict resolution at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is an active participant in the ECADOC program for PHD students of the European Society for Vocational Designing and Career Counseling. Her research areas focus on career counseling, including work meaning, career transitions, higher education orientations, as well as gender issues in career development.



Yuliya Lipshits BrazilerYuliya Lipshits-Braziler, PhD, is a lecturer in the Department of Educational Counseling at the Seymour Fox School of Education, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She earned her PhD in career and educational counseling at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with distinction. She was postdoctoral fellow at the University of Padova, Italy. Her main research areas include aspects of educational and career counseling in multicultural societies, focusing on (a) coping strategies, coping efficacy, work meaning; (b) the school-to-work transition; and (c) school counseling in the digital era and online help seeking among adolescents. In her free time, Yuliya enjoys reading, cooking, and spending time with her three children. She can be reached at  yuliya.lipshits@mail.huji.ac.il



Itamar GatiItamar Gati, PhD, is Samuel and Esther Melton Professor (Emeritus) in Psychology and Education at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is a Fellow of Divisions 17 and 52 of the American Psychological Association, a Fellow of NCDA, and the recipient of NCDA's Eminent Career Award, and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the International section of Div 17. His core interest is studying career decision-making and developing ways of facilitating making better career decisions. He is the developer of www.cddq.org, a free, anonymous, evidence-based career planning system that includes both needs assessments and tailored interventions. In his free time, he enjoys games, and spending time with his six grandchildren. He can be reached at itamar.gati@mail.huji.ac.il  



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Brian Pillsbury   on Tuesday 08/02/2022 at 10:22 AM

Thanks for writing this very interesting article. I recently presented on the social cognitive theory of career self-management (SCTCSM, Lent & Brown, 2013), and it strikes me that the HEO is an excellent way to measure outcome expectations, a critical component of SCTCSM.

Brian Pillsbury   on Tuesday 08/02/2022 at 10:28 AM

I also wanted to mention that your instrument seems to get at the reasons students *think* they have for attending college but not necessarily what they get out of it, which is one of the great things about college. A student might think they are there to get a good job, which is possibly the result of familial input, but then they take some general education LA&S classes, which ignite the student's interest in the pursuit of knowledge. Therefore, an academic advisor might coach students to be open to those classes that don't seem career-related instead of assuming they will primarily value the profession-oriented classes.

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