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When Ambitions Aren’t Enough: The Role of Motivation, Self-Regulation, and Individual Agency in Higher-Education Goal Pursuit


There is a growing disconnect between youth’s expectations to attend and graduate from college on the one hand and their ability to follow through on these plans on the other. This discrepancy is pronounced at the community college, especially among low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students. What is missing in the current community college literature is an investigation of the role of agency in facilitating transfer among community college students. Based on theoretical work, low-structured environments like the community college require a substantial amount of individual agency to attain long-term goals (Heckhausen et al., 2010). Thus, students must depend heavily on their own internal, motivational resources to reach their educational goals.

Two studies examined motivational and self-regulatory strategies, specifically goal engagement and compensatory secondary control (composed of goal adjustment and self-protection), among community college students aspiring to transfer. Goal engagement strategies aid in the successful pursuit of goals, while compensatory secondary control strategies are responses to setbacks or obstacles in goal pursuit. Study 1 assessed students within one year of transferring to a university, while Study 2 assessed first-year community college students over a two-year period. Participants included 163 students in Study 1 and 193 students in Study 2 from two local community college districts. The sample was largely comprised of women and was ethnically diverse.

Regression-based analyses investigated the impact of motivational and self-regulatory strategies on academic behavior, transfer-related behavior, transfer outcomes, well-being and satisfaction variables. Across Study 1 and Study 2, goal engagement strategies were associated with positive outcomes. Compensatory secondary control strategies had fewer significant relationships with variables of interest and relationships were negative. Additionally, the interaction between compensatory secondary control and selective primary control (a goal engagement subscale) influenced transfer behaviors and outcomes. Significant ethnic differences emerged in goal engagement with Latino students reporting higher levels of goal engagement than Asian American or European American students, despite poorer academic performance and taking longer to transfer to a university. The results of both studies can be used to implement cost-effective and short-term psychological interventions that maximize students’ motivational resources and facilitate transfer to a university.

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