Even though the percentage of incoming freshmen who identify as conservative has stayed relatively stable, those students and the rest of their peers are shifting away from hard-line conservative stances on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, marijuana legalization and affirmative action.
The latest iteration of The American Freshman: National Norms , published annually by UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program, also found that as students who entered four-year colleges in fall 2011 are increasingly concerned about finances, they’re also more academically oriented in high school, studying more and partying less.
Politics and Student Opinion
Even though on an issue-by-issue basis the opinions of incoming freshmen are becoming less conservative, the number of liberal students per se is not necessarily on the rise.
As students over the past couple of years have become more likely to self-identify politically as “middle of the road” (47.4 percent in 2011, up three percentage points since 2009), the percentage who consider themselves “liberal” has actually declined more than that of those who say they’re “conservative.”
This is a very interesting – and encouraging – development, says Connie Flanagan, a professor of youth civic development at Pennsylvania State University.
“People still believe they’re conservative or liberal, and yet they can be tolerant in these ways. I see that as a really good sign,” Flanagan said. “They’re capable of separating where they feel they stand politically from where they stand in terms of tolerance.”
The report itself notes that support for some of these issues, including abortion and legalization of marijuana, has gone up and down over the years, so there’s no telling whether the overall shift will continue. But, while younger generations are always more tolerant than older ones, the advent of social media may be one reason why support is on the upswing again, Flanagan suggested. (Recent research from Facebook  suggested that social media “increase[s] the spread of novel information and diverse viewpoints,” and only 5.2 percent of survey respondents said they don’t spend any time per week on social networking sites.
The rise in the number of students who support same-sex marriage is the biggest shift in this year’s survey. At 71.3 percent, the percentage of incoming freshmen who agree either “somewhat” or “strongly” that same-sex couples should have the right to legal marital status is up “a remarkable” 6.4 percentage points from two years ago, the report says. While support is more common among women (77.3 percent), it’s increasing faster among men (64.1 percent).
This year’s survey also shows a decline in the percentage of students who oppose access to public education for undocumented immigrants, to 43 percent in 2011 from 47.2 percent in 2009. And more agree or strongly agree that “students from disadvantaged social backgrounds should be given preferential treatment in college admissions.” An all-time high of 42.1 percent of incoming freshmen support that statement, up 4.7 percentage points from 2009. That’s a faster rate of increase than the survey shows for support of marijuana legalization, which is up 3.5 percentage points to 49.1 percent – just shy of the 1977 record of 51.3 percent. (The survey asks only whether students "agree" or "strongly agree" with a statement about a given issue, so students who don't answer in the affirmative may either oppose the issue or simply not care about it.)
Finally, while the belief that abortion should be legal is still significantly less common than it was in 1992 -- when a record 67.2 percent of freshmen agreed -- a 2.7 percentage-point increase since 2007 makes for 60.7 percent this year.
It’s been one of the most tumultuous years in recent memory for student activists. Police using pepper spray  and batons  against peaceful protesters associated with the Occupy movement only served to further infuriate the thousands of students who were already rallying against tuition increases, rising debt and a general division of wealth. While the furor of Occupy didn’t reach colleges until after CIRP conducted the survey of nearly 204,000 first-time, full-time students at four-year colleges and universities, it will almost certainly continue to shape the views of these students, Flanagan said.
“Enough of that message is going to resonate with their reality,” she said. “It presents a different image of what’s possible.”
Finances and Academic Drive
As students are becoming more financially strained, they’re also demonstrating a greater investment in schoolwork and less likelihood to “engage in non-academic activities that might interfere with academic gains” (read: drinking and partying).
While only 39.5 percent of incoming freshmen say they spent six or more hours per week studying or doing homework in high school, that’s up nearly five percentage points from two years ago. Up almost three points since 2009 is the percentage of students who frequently took notes during class (69.2 percent) and who took five or more Advanced Placement courses (22 percent).
At the same time, fewer students than did so two years ago report occasionally or frequently drinking wine or liquor (from 44.4 percent in 2009 to 41.1 percent in 2011) drinking beer (from 39.5 to 35.4 percent), “partying” at all (from 69.7 to 65.3 percent), and frequently going to class late (from 57.5 to 54.7 percent) and being bored once they get there (from 38.6 to 36.4 percent).
John H. Pryor, director of CIRP and co-author of the study, doesn’t know for sure what’s driving all this. But he speculated that the convergence of several other factors, directly or indirectly tied to finances, is playing a role.
As fewer students are receiving grants or scholarships to pay for college (69.5 percent, down from 73.4 percent in 2010), the value of this aid has gone down as well: students receiving $10,000 or more dropped from 29.2 percent in last year’s survey to 26.8 percent this year. While the percentage of students relying on loans dropped very slightly – about half a percentage point – to 52.5 percent this year, that’s an increase of 7.7 percentage points over the last decade. Over the same time period, the percentage of students expecting to take out at least $10,000 in loans has more than doubled, to 13.3 percent.
Many students' parents are still unemployed; this year, slightly fewer fathers are in search of work (4.7 percent, compared to 4.9 percent last year), but the percentage of unemployed mothers has stayed steady at 8.6 percent. Fewer students anticipate financing their first year of college through family resources (78.3 percent) and personal resources (61.7 percent).
Another indicator that financial concerns are playing a role in academic pursuits is the fact that since 2009, the most common reason students have cited for going to college was to be able to get a better job. Nearly 86 percent said that was “very important” in their decision-making process. (“That was not the case five years ago,” Pryor said; that reasoning surpassed "to learn more about things that interest me" in 2008.)
And finally, fewer students than ever report being enrolled at the college they most wanted to attend, although a significant number of students continue to do so. Despite the fact that 76 percent of this year's freshmen were accepted to their first-choice institution, only 57.9 percent enrolled in their preferred college -- that’s the lowest the figure has been since 1974, when CIRP first asked the question. It's also down from 60.5 percent in 2010 and continuing a decline that began in 2006. The gap between acceptance to and attendance at first-choice institutions is especially stark among first-generation students; while nearly 76 percent are accepted, only about 55 percent attend. The gap for students whose parents attended college is only 0.3 percentage points – 76.2 percent are accepted and 75.9 percent attend. And despite the fact that more women than men get accepted to their first-choice institution, fewer opt to go there.
“Usually the reason why you’re not attending your first-choice institution is because you can’t afford to go there, because you didn’t get the aid you needed to be able to go there,” Pryor said. “[Are all those factors] part of what’s driving students to be a little bit more serious about their academic pursuits? Perhaps.”
In this year’s survey, 11.9 percent of incoming freshmen reported “major concerns” about financing their education, up .8 percentage points from last year, and 55.5 percent reported “some concerns,” up a percentage point from last year.
Following up on the biggest findings of last year’s survey  -- that the level at which incoming freshmen rated their own emotional health reached an all-time low, as they simultaneously reported record-high academic ability and drive to achieve – CIRP found only minimal shifts. In 2011, 52.6 percent of students said their emotional health was in the “highest 10 percent” or “above average,” up slightly from 51.9 percent in 2010, and 28.5 percent said they were frequently “overwhelmed by all [they] had to do” as high school seniors, down slightly from 29.1 percent last year.
“Given these small changes,” the authors of the study cautioned, “we would maintain that college administrators and faculty members continue to need to monitor incoming first-year students for signs of stress and to promote activities that support health and well-being.”