40 Years of Changes in the Student Body

Researchers who conduct annual survey of freshmen offer a look at long-term trends.
April 9, 2007

For four decades, the University of California at Los Angeles has administered the Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshmen Survey, recording the values, attitudes and backgrounds of the high school graduates who will become the next batch of American college students. Their self-reported answers form the backbone of a large trove of data that has served to illuminate trends in higher education.

Today, UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute is releasing a broad overview of trends gleaned from the survey. The report, "The American Freshman: Forty-Year Trends 1966–2006," highlights some striking changes in the makeup of college freshman classes, many of which confirm widely reported trends -- but not without a few surprising findings.

Amid reports documenting the widening gap between the lowest and highest earners in America, as well as concern among educators that selective institutions are mainly the domain of the financially advantaged, it might not come as a surprise that today's freshmen are the most well-off since at least 35 years ago -- with median incomes 60 percent above the national average, as compared to 46 percent above average in 1971. The report also highlighted a difference between public and private incoming freshmen: the income of families sending students to public institutions is rising faster than that for students at private colleges.

Income Gap Between National Average and Median Parental Income of Freshmen (2006 Dollars)

Type of Institution 1971 2005
Public $17,800 $25,600
Private $27,300 $35,700

Meanwhile, two developments in students' attitudes toward life provide either contradictory or nuanced responses -- depending on one's point of view -- about financial goals and altruism. Being well-off is students' number-two priority (73.4 percent) -- second only to raising a family -- but helping others comes in third, the highest it's been as a priority in 20 years.

The percentage of freshmen last year who predicted they'd participate in community service also increased significantly, while being a community leader was rated more important than ever (about a third considered it "very important" or "essential"). The report also noted the increased engagement in community service at the high school level, although it wasn't clear how much of that was due to college admissions pressures and graduation requirements. Instead of concluding that today's students are becoming more materialstic, John H. Pryor, director of the CIRP survey, interpreted these trends as showing that students are "very interested in raising families and helping others, both of which are accomplished with greater ease if one is well-off financially."

These trends have been ongoing within a rapidly changing demographic environment. In 1971, 90.9 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen were white, while today the percentage is down to 76.5. Since then, all minority groups have made attendance gains, although at different rates and some, like African Americans, already reached their numerical peak and, due to various factors, have slowly decreased their share of the freshman population.

Racial/Ethnic Group 1971 1980 1990 2000 2006
White 90.9 84.1 80.7 76.1 76.5
African American 7.5 12.5 12.1 10.4 10.5
American Indian 0.9 0.8 1.3 1.9 2.2
Asian/Asian American 0.6 1.4 3.8 7.1 8.6
Latino/a 0.6 1.4 2.2 6.7 7.3
Other race 1.0 1.7 1.8 3.6 3.6
Multiracial 1.3 1.2 1.7 4.8 7.2

The report also highlighted several other trends:

  • The proportion of students claiming no religious affiliation has increased, from 13.6 to 19.1 percent between 1966 and 2006. The fraction of Roman Catholics remained stable, but the share of Jews and Protestants decreased. There was a similar decline among their parents.
  • About two-thirds of students today socialize with people of another race or ethnicity in high school, and a similar percentage expect to do so in college. This contrasts markedly with students' views on racism and their institutions' obligation to foster interracial dialogue: A little over a third believe promoting racial understanding is "essential" or "very important," down from its peak just after the Rodney King incident in 1992, while 19.1 percent believe to some extent that racism is no longer a major problem in society. In a departure of tone from the rest of the document, the authors expressed explicit disapproval of these trends, writing, "students’ personal goals and beliefs at college entry may be cause for concern."
  • While students are becoming more and more prepared for college work -- in terms of the number of years spent studying certain subjects -- gaps favoring men over women persist in the physical and computer sciences, but no longer in mathematics.
  • Students' self-confidence in academic ability continues to soar, with 68.6 percent considering themselves "above average" or in the top 10 percent of their peer group. At the same time, grades are continuing to reinforce those beliefs. Inflation has intensified in the past 20 years, with 24.1 percent of students -- a record -- reporting an A- high-school average last year. Higher grades are also more likely with more AP and honors courses.
  • In a finding that's not likely to surprise many students, tardiness is also becoming more common in the last year of high school. In the past few years, however, that has slightly reversed, due perhaps to increased vigilance on the part of college admissions officers fighting the spread of senioritis.
  • The percentage of students applying to more than three colleges has almost tripled since 1967, to 56.5 percent. But it might not be as out of hand as popular media reports suggest: only 2.2 percent last year applied to 12 or more colleges.
  • The importance of going to a college with a high reputation has remained virtually unchanged since 1983, according to responses, but rankings have factored in as increasingly important in making that determination. Still, only 16.4 percent of respondents found rankings to be very important in their overall decision.
  • Students are becoming more polarized. Moderates are in decline, and more are labeling themselves as either liberal or conservative. Another interesting finding (which might surprise David Horowitz) concerns campus speakers' freedom to express themselves: "Over half (55.1 percent) of conservative (and far right) students believe that colleges have the right to ban extreme speakers compared to only 28.5 percent of liberal (and far left) students. Thus, not only may some polarizing issues divide students, but the method by which they engage each other in dialogue concerning these issues may also be a point of disagreement."



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