What Are Freshmen Thinking?

January 22, 2009

A record 43 percent of freshmen say that a financial aid offer was a “very important” or “essential” factor in choosing which college to attend. And while an increasing number report receiving grants and scholarships -- 69.3 percent received such aid in 2008 -- that has not been accompanied by a corresponding drop in their use of loans, according to the latest installment of a long-running annual survey of college freshmen.

This year's freshmen are about as likely to rely on family resources as first-years did in 2001, but they’re also turning to self-sufficiency: 49.4 percent of freshmen say they plan on getting a job to meet their college expenses, another all-time high.

In other words, “It’s more, and,” says Sylvia Hurtado, professor and director of the University of California at Los Angeles's Higher Education Research Institute, which administers the survey. “They’re using everything they can. They’re using loans and deciding to work more and using scholarships and any kind of aid.”

“The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2008,” a longitudinal study now in its 43rd year, is based on a fall 2008 survey of 240,580 first-time, full-time students at 340 four-year colleges. (Community college students are not included because not enough two-year institutions participate to produce a normative report, Hurtado explains.)

Not surprisingly, given the economic collapse, college prices are on students’ minds. The proportion of students accepted by their first-choice college but attending another institution increased from 16.5 percent in 2007 to 17.1 percent in 2008, with financial issues being the main driver in those decisions, the survey finds.

Money matters aside, the survey tracks a number of other trends, including a steadily growing number of freshmen self-reporting learning disabilities and, politically speaking, increasing engagement and a leftward drift.

The survey finds that 3.3 percent of 2008 freshmen report having a learning disability, continuing what has been an upward trend since 1983 ("I think they're being better-identified at an earlier stage; they come in already knowing this, and having coped with it," says Hurtado). The report also describes a number of characteristics of students who self-report as learning disabled. Among them, they’re more likely to believe they’ll need extra time to complete a bachelor’s degree (11.6 versus 6.4 percent of the overall freshman population), and to believe they’ll need tutoring for specific courses (43.5 versus 31.6 percent).

Consistent with reports leading up to the 2008 presidential election, the survey describes record political engagement, with 85.9 percent of freshmen reporting that they frequently or occasionally discuss politics. (The proportion for “frequently,” 35.6 percent, was also a record over the previous high, in 1968.)

The proportion of students who describe themselves as “middle-of-the-road” politically continues to decline, hitting an all-time low of 43.3 percent, while the proportion who describe themselves as liberal and far left grew to 31 and 3.2 percent, respectively. “This is the largest percentage of students categorizing themselves as liberal since 1973,” states the survey. The survey finds that 20.7 percent of freshmen characterize themselves as conservative, down slightly from 23.1 percent the year before.

The report finds increasing support among freshmen for liberal causes -- including same-sex marriage. Support for environmental causes continues to grow.

Freshmen are also, apparently, partying less in high school. In 2008, 18.8 percent say they partied an average of six or more hours a week, half the 36.8 percent total in 1987.

The percentages of freshmen who drank beer (38 percent) and wine or liquor (43.9 percent) occasionally or frequently as high school students are also the lowest they’ve been in 43 years of collecting data.

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