How do you construct a narrative about college freshmen these days? Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles take their shot annually with a survey of 270,000 entering undergraduates at roughly 400 colleges across the country.
This year's data show that the first-year students are increasingly politically minded and moving away from the center of the political spectrum. They are far apart on many social issues and appear mixed on affirmative action. They are concerned about financing their educations and are fully confident in their academic abilities.
One in three students reported discussing politics frequently during their last year of high school, according to " The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2006 ," (a brief summary is available) a product of UCLA's Cooperative Institutional Research Program. That's up from 26 percent in 2004, the last time that question was asked, and represents the highest total in the 40 years of the survey.
“This bodes well for fostering democratic citizenship during college,” Sylvia Hurtado, director of the Higher Education Research Institute, which administered the survey, said in a statement.
The findings are, perhaps, not surprising, given that many expect the 18- to 24-year-old turnout from last fall's midterm elections to break records once the data are revealed. A report  from Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, released before the elections, foreshadowed increasing political activity. In that poll, 32 percent of people in the college-going age category said they “definitely will be voting," and three in four said the likelihood that they would cast ballots was at least 50 percent.
John H. Pryor, director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, said it's not just a matter of students being hyped up during an even-numbered election year. "There's an assumption people have been making about how these numbers jump up or down based on the circumstances, but this year's numbers [of students saying they talked politics] was higher than in past presidential election years."
If the data improve the prospects for democratic dialogue on campuses, as Hurtado suggests, they also portend more conflict. The proportion of students who identified themselves as being liberal (28 percent) and conservative (24 percent) were the highest in decades. Fewer than half said they are “middle of the road" -- the lowest percentage measured since 1970.
“We try to make this useful for colleges, and the piece about political affiliations gives them a heads-up that a trend is coming through," Pryor said. “You can assume that there are going to be heated arguments on campus that will need to be examined.”
Students in the survey were also asked about their views on a range of social issues. The one that most divides the self-identified liberals and conservatives: same-sex marriage. Eighty-four percent of liberals said same-sex couples should have the right to legal marital status, compared with 30 percent of conservatives who share that view.
Slightly more than 50 percent of conservative students agree that affirmative action in college admissions should be abolished, while just under 50 percent of liberal students take that stance. The survey didn't break down the data by ethnic or racial groups.
Two of three students surveyed said they have "some" or "major" concerns about paying for college. For those who were admitted to their first-choice college but who didn't attend, the inability to afford tuition at the institution was a primarily reason to enroll elsewhere, according to the report.
The survey also measures who is taking advanced placement courses in high school. In all, an increasing number of students are taking at least one AP course during their senior year. Asian students led in this category, ahead of white students. Fewer than half of black students took one or more AP course as seniors -- the lowest of any racial or ethnic group. The report found that black students are the most likely to attend high schools that don’t offer the courses.
Making more money and getting a better job were two of the top reasons that students cited for choosing to go to college. And Lake Wobegon lives: Seventy-two percent of men and 66 percent of women surveyed said they are either “above average” or in the “highest 10 percent” of academic ability.