By Sara Lipka
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.
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.