Guess What College Freshmen Think

News reports on UCLA’s latest annual survey of college freshmen have focused on worries about financial aid as a factor in choosing which college to attend. Well, yes. But there are brighter nuggets to be mined here.
How about this one: partying and beer-drinking in general continue their dramatic decline among incoming students. Reporting on their senior year in high school, 38 percent of students said they drank beer occasionally or frequently, the lowest figure in the 43 years of the survey and less than half of the beer-guzzling rate of the late 1970s. Reported consumption of wine and liquor are also at an all-time low. A total of 18.8 percent of new freshmen said they partied 6 or more hours a week. That’s half the 1987 rate.
The annual national survey of, run by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), reached 240,580 first-time full-time students at 340 baccalaureate colleges and universities around the country.
Political engagement is up, at least measured by the number of students who said they frequently discussed politics in the past year—35.6 percent, the highest in any presidential election in the more than four decades of the survey, exceeding 1968, the previous all-time high. The percentage of freshmen saying it is essential or very important to keep up with politics (28.1 percent in 2000—a record low) rose to 39.5 percent in 2008.


Perhaps in reaction to President Bush, or perhaps under the influence of popular TV humorists, college freshmen have been drifting to the political left. The percentage of self-reported conservatives is not down sharply (20.7 percent in 2007, 23.1 in 2008) but the traditional middle-of-the-road group has been declining for years, tilting liberal (31 percent of freshmen) or far left (3.2 percent). This is the largest percentage of freshmen reported on the left since the Watergate year of 1973.
Support for liberal causes increased. Two-thirds of the students approve same-sex marriage. Almost 80 percent think the federal government is not doing enough to control environmental pollution, and more than 60 percent think the wealthy should pay more in taxes than they do now. Support for the legalization of marijuana, increasing for years, rose again last year by more than 3 percentage points to 41.3, though only 32 percent said they had smoked any pot in the last year. One non-liberal finding: freshmen weren’t much interested in eliminating the death penalty. Only 31.2 percent said it should be abolished.
Support for abortion rose and fell over the years and is now on the upswing. Those believing “strongly or somewhat” that abortion should be legal hit 85.7 percent in 1970, dropped to 55.6 percent in 1977, climbed back to 67.2 percent in 1992, fell to an all-time low in 53.2 percent in 1999, and this year reached 58.2 percent.
During the 1960s and 1970s, “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was among the highest-rated objectives reported by freshmen, with as many as 85 percent reporting that it was an essential or very important personal goal. That figure sank to a record low of 39.3 percent in 2003, then rebounded to the current percent of 51.4, “a return to value levels not seen since the early 80s”, according to the study.
The report notes a continuing decline in religion. In 1966, 13.6 percent had no religious affiliation. This year it was 21.2 percent, with most of the fall-off coming from the Protestant churches.
The opinion that affirmative action should be abolished has been holding steady (42.7 percent, 52.4 percent at private universities). One trend is that some conservative students are abandoning their opposition. Another report from HERI, American Freshman: Forty Year Trends, 1966-2006 says “Conservative/far right and liberal far/left students are more polarized on abortion and gay rights, and less polarized on issues having to so with the use of affirmative action and the legalization of marijuana.”
Interest in engineering as a major and as a profession rebounded from mid-decade lows, with men outpacing women at a rate more than five to one. Still, the increase in interest among women and men is about equal—around 20 percent—though the women’s rise of from a low base. Women are more likely than men to use the Internet for research or homework, to blog and to read blogs. Men use the Internet more to read news reports.
Incoming students have not been reading much. When asked how much reading for pleasure they did in a typical week as high school seniors, 23.9 said less than one hour and 24.6 said none at all. Time spent playing video or computer games may be less that most people believe. Just under 20 percent said less than an hour per week, and almost 40 percent said none at all. Finally, just under 50 percent of students expect to work to pay for their college education, the highest percentage in the 32 years that question has been asked.
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Note: The figure on support for the legalization of marijuana come from the Freshman survey, as stated, but the statistic on marijuana usage (32 percent of seniors), though cited in the survey, comes from a different source, the Monitoring the Future project.

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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