• September 3, 2015

Economy Changed Freshmen's Plans but Didn't Shake Their Confidence

Ambitious and harried, pro-environment and pro-gay rights, waylaid by a bad economy: That's the typical college freshman this year, according to an annual national survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Polled during the first few weeks of the fall semester, more freshmen than ever reported having above-average academic ability and "drive to achieve." But fewer than ever reported high levels of emotional health (see related article). Among other highs in the survey's history were students' expectations that they would communicate regularly with professors (38.2 percent reported a very good chance) and would study abroad (31.5 percent).

"More students expect more of themselves and expect more of the college environment," said John H. Pryor, director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, which administers the survey.

Freshmen across the country also acknowledge the impact of the recession, with 62.1 percent saying the current economic situation had significantly affected their college choice. Compared with students who reported no effect, those who felt the pinch were almost as likely to have been accepted by their first-choice institutions (78 percent versus 80.3 percent), but notably less likely to have enrolled there (55.2 percent versus 68.8 percent).

Students who said the economy had changed their plans were less likely to be going to a college more than 100 miles away from home (43.8 percent versus 55.3 percent) and more likely to be living with family members (17.6 percent versus 11.4 percent). The unemployment rate of students' fathers, 4.9 percent, rose slightly over last year's mark, to the highest level since the survey began tracking the figure, in 1971. For mothers, the unemployment rate this year was also a record high, 8.6 percent.

Over all, students show reliance on multiple sources to pay for college, according to the report. More than half of freshmen reported using loans, and almost three-quarters said they'd received grants and scholarships, the highest proportion since the survey began asking that question, in 2001.

This year's freshmen largely agree that the chief benefit of college is that it increases earning power. In 1971, when the survey first asked that question, 52.9 percent of students were in agreement; this year 72.7 were, the highest proportion yet.

Those figures aren't as alarming as they might sound to academics, Mr. Pryor said. "You might be waving your hands around, 'Woe is me! What happened to the liberal-arts education?'" he said. "But students recognize that there are multiple outcomes."

Indeed, among the reasons freshmen identified as "very important" in deciding to go to college were: to learn more about things that interest them, which 82.8 percent of students checked; to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas, 72.4 percent; to prepare for graduate school, 60.2 percent; and to become a more cultured person, 50.9 percent. Twenty-five years ago, those proportions were all significantly lower. Students today "expect more and more different things out of their experience," Mr. Pryor said.

Above Average

Many of this year's freshmen seem to hail from Lake Wobegon, as 71.2 percent rated their academic abilities above average. And 66.4 percent expect to carry at least a B average in college. Given the high-school grade inflation that Mr. Pryor has seen over consecutive years of survey results, he wasn't surprised, nor did he think the students would be disappointed: "Most of them will get that."

For the first time this year, the survey also broke down various "hidden" disabilities. It found that 5 percent of freshmen have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, 3.8 percent have a psychological disorder, and 2.9 percent have a learning disability. Over all, 11.9 percent of students reported at least one medical condition or disability.

Politically, freshmen span the spectrum. Slightly more identified themselves as "far left" (2.9 percent) than "far right" (1.8 percent), and there were more liberals (27.3 percent) than conservatives (21.7 percent). But the largest proportion, 46.4, were "middle of the road."

Among freshmen's most strongly held political positions was that the federal government isn't doing enough to control pollution, which 78.2 percent believed. More than three-quarters said gay and lesbian people should have the legal right to adopt a child, and more than two-thirds agreed that the federal government should do more to control the sale of handguns.

"The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010" polled 201,818 first-time, full-time, first-year students at 279 colleges and universities in the United States. The program that runs the 45-year-old survey, whose data are widely used in academic studies, has been striving to make its findings more accessible, in part with a new blog.

For the first time this spring, the Higher Education Research Institute will also administer a national survey to assess the campus climate for diversity and learning.


1. electronicmuse - January 27, 2011 at 05:52 am

Not at all surprising that 71.2% of students rate their academic prowess as "better than average," despite the obvious statistical impossibility. This is about how all people rate themselves on almost everything, from golf-to their ability to drive while distracted. Such self deception doesn't matter so much on a superficial level, but when most Americans engage in chauvinism regarding how a generation of students actually "rank" in the world, we're in for a peck of trouble. I'm seeing objective rank-order figures such as 21st and/or 25th in math and science. If these data are accurate, they certainly collide with "our" self-image as a country. We're starting to believe our own political rhetoric, and worse, we don't even recognize it as rhetoric, so we elect cheerleaders. But, then again, it's not "patriotic" to point out such problems.

Time to get to work, kiddies. Never mind your inflated grade point averages. "Image" will get you only so far, even in the USA.

2. ucfhonors - January 27, 2011 at 08:16 am

If we look to the faculty, similarly high self-report ratings are found. Several years ago a national survey found that around 80% of faculty rated their teaching performance as "above average." Another statistical impossibility.

3. bwebs16 - January 27, 2011 at 08:58 am

The academic ability question depends on how it was phrased. Are they supposed to compare themselves to other college bound students? Since most of them would not yet know their competition, they'd likely be comparing themselves against their high school classmates, of which 60% (I don't have this statistic, but that's a rough guess)go on to college. With that in mind, 71.2% thinking they're better than average does not seem so far off.

I do also wonder if students would think of "average" simply as the 50% cutoff line, and not as a big group of individuals on either side of that line.

4. tclundberg - January 27, 2011 at 09:10 am

It is interesting that this article describes "the typical college freshman" based on a sample drawn from 279 four-year colleges and universities.

Two points worth thinking about as we mull over the "average" first-year student. First, a significant cohort of college students are not "freshman" at four-year colleges and universities. Second, students who are "freshman" at two-year colleges may have quite a different profile than the one reported here.

5. frankietx - January 27, 2011 at 11:17 am

Let's take these self-reported characteristics with a grain of salt. Most Freshmen are 17-19 years old and in addition to being academically better than average, probably think that they are very attractive and bullet proof.

6. arrive2__net - January 29, 2011 at 11:41 pm

'71.2% felt they were above average in academic ability' ...students believing in themselves is part of what puts them where they are. Young people believing themselves to be merely average or below are less likely to be in those "279 colleges and universities" to begin with. Based on the survey results modern students seem to have more different reasons to be in college, I hope that also gives them more reasons to stick it out and be successful.

Bernard Schuster

7. drkull - February 01, 2011 at 05:17 pm

This is a joke, right? This survey? Does anyone in these surveys ask if people see themselves as "abnormal?" What's the assumption here? Normalcy is in the eye of the beholder, or simply artifacts of statistics. And what do we mean by "average" - of what? Wasn't the bell-curve discredited years ago in favor of multiple intelligences and/or that everyone has a certain set of strengths and weaknesses that might have something to do with our evolutionary history and our exposure to different media? And why are we still using grades instead of some other form of testing that, say, measures the brain's response to different stimuli? Are we so mired in tradition, culture and convention that we have forgotten the point of "higher" learning? Wait a minute.... did you write this survey in the bathroom?

8. burger1376 - February 02, 2011 at 07:44 am

I think we need to do a survey on the economy and its effects on what major student decide to study. We need a lot less art majors and a lot more science and IT majors. So many students want to study business, but they won't get a job with a business degree. Businesses want students who were educated in science, math, IT, and/or engineering. Business majors need to start majoring in these degrees and minoring in business, or they should at least major in business and minor in one of these other degrees. Otherwise, they will be a dime a dozen. Teachers and professors also need to let those who want to work in business know this simple fact. Otherwise, US business will continue looking overseas for their employees, and our own businesspersons will be far behind those in other nations who get a better education in real life business tasks.

9. merton - February 12, 2011 at 10:01 am

Health and wellness have a direct correlation to the strength of the prevention programs available to students. As with anything else of this nature in the current climate of our society, there is very little in or out of school, at any level, that attempts to facilitate affective growth and development on a universal level.

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