Today's college freshmen party less, volunteer more

Today's college freshmen appear to be a pretty wholesome bunch. By one survey's count, they get better grades, party less, volunteer in record numbers, and are more politically engaged than freshmen of years past.

But a closer look reveals that the Class of '07 isn't necessarily ready for any Wheaties box closeups. For one thing, they're accustomed to hitting the books less often than many earlier freshmen classes, according to "The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2003," a survey by UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.

Sure, they are earning "A" averages at an all-time high of 46.6 percent, and fewer of them are getting Cs or less (a record low of 5.1 percent), but grade inflation - and not noses in their books - may be the reason.

"As the 'A' average becomes the norm, the 'C" grade is becoming a thing of the past," says Alexander Astin, a UCLA education professor. Indeed, the survey shows that in 2003, only 34 percent of entering freshmen report studying or doing homework six or more hours per week in their senior year of high school.

The survey, conducted every year since 1966, tallied responses from 276,449 students at 413 colleges and universities in the US.

Topping the survey's list of 21 values is the importance of raising a family, with a record 74.8 percent of college freshmen noting that this is an essential life goal. Right on its heels is the second-highest ranking value: succeeding financially, which reached its highest point in 13 years at 73.8 percent. Students' desire to "develop a meaningful philosophy of life" dropped to a low of 39.3 percent viewing it as important compared with 85.8 percent in 1967.

"These contrasting trends," says Linda J. Sax, survey director, "reflect the continuing tension between extrinsic and intrinsic values within this generation of college students."

Religious involvement is on the wane, the survey also shows. The number of students claiming "none" as their religious preference has nearly tripled since 1966, reaching a high of 17.6 in 2003. The proportion of students who pray on a weekly basis has declined from 66.9 percent in 1996, to 63.8 percent in 2003.

Politics, on the other hand, is gaining favor. The percentage of freshmen who discuss politics on a frequent basis increased from 19.4 percent in 2002 to 22.5 percent in 2003. These numbers pale in comparison to record highs of the 1960 when 60.3 percent of freshmen valued keeping up with politics in 1966, and one-third of college freshmen talked about politics frequently in 1968.

But the recent numbers are still significant. "Although today's freshmen show far less interest in politics than their parents' generation," comments Ms. Sax, "these recent shifts are noteworthy given their reversal of the long-term trend toward political disengagement."

Some of the survey's most encouraging findings include surging interest in volunteerism and declining interest in drinking, smoking, and drug use. Fewer than half of the students report frequent or occasional beer drinking (44.8 percent, compared with 73.7 percent in 1982). Only 6.3 percent of students say they smoked cigarettes frequently during their senior year in high school.

"This generation was raised during a time of vocal anti- drug campaigns," Sax says. "Apparently, those efforts have enjoyed some degree of success."

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