Today's freshmen pursue 'safe and tried path' to success

If you haven't been to a college campus lately, here's a quick primer on the current freshman class: • 26 percent frequently talk about politics.

• 48 percent had 'A' averages in high school.

• 33 percent say the death penalty should be abolished.

• 23 percent say racial discrimination is no longer a problem in America (though at historically black colleges, that figure drops to 14 percent).

• 51 percent spent less than an hour per week reading for pleasure in their senior year of high school.

Each fall since 1965, first-year students at more than 400 four-year colleges and universities sit down to a massive survey developed by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles. It asks about everything from their intended majors to their political and spiritual values.

The participants probably don't realize that they are throwing their mite into a treasure trove. For college administrators, the survey results can be a road map for future course offerings, financial aid, and counseling services. For social scientists, it's a chance to explore a nearly 40-year arc of shifting values.

From her vantage point as dean of first-year students at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Voncile White says that students in recent years have become much more worried about choosing the "right major" and boosting their résumés with community service.

"I find them a lot more reluctant to explore something they haven't done before - they'd rather take a safe and tried path," Ms. White says. "We're engaged in a struggle to try to get them to become educated individuals rather than just people who know a lot of stuff."

Her observations follow some of the trend lines in "The American Freshman," the annual report by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute (HERI). Results were released Monday from the fall of 2004, the 39th year of the survey. The nearly 290,000 responses were statistically adjusted to reflect the nation's 1.3 million full-time freshmen.

For the past 25 years, there's been an increase in the percentage of students who place a high value on "being very well off financially," and a parallel decline in the importance of "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" (see chart, right).

When the survey started in the 1960s, focus groups insisted that the "philosophy of life" choice be added to the list of important goals students could check off. "That was the most popular value," says Alexander Astin, founding director of HERI, who has been involved with the project from its inception. "Most of the decline occurred during the '80s - the Reagan era, the 'Me' era."

Other changes help explain students' concerns about their financial futures. With rising college costs, for instance, the portion of students who plan to work full time while in school has more than doubled since 1980, to 6.3 percent.

There was a slight uptick in favor of developing a meaningful philosophy of life, but researchers won't call it a reversal of the trend unless it continues for another year or two.

The overall pull of materialism in society is prompting many colleges to do more "to encourage exploration of the inner life," Mr. Astin says.

Some campuses are reviving Western Civilization and Great Books courses, which send the message "Know thyself," he says. The trend of service-learning also requires self-reflection. And many colleges now have "Freshmen 101" programs. "The best are an attempt to get the students to look at what the college is offering and to make sense out of it in terms of their own values and aspirations and hopes," Astin says.

A spinoff project on spirituality in higher education is also in the works at HERI, tracking students all the way through college to explore the interaction of academics, religion, spirituality, and other aspects of college life. A pilot study found that by junior year, church attendance drops off significantly, but more students place importance on integrating spirituality into their lives (58 percent of juniors, compared with 51 percent of freshmen).

When it comes to political engagement, first-year students don't come close to their 1960s counterparts, but one-third still say it's very important to keep up with political affairs.

Nearly half consider themselves "middle of the road" politically, but the numbers are growing on the far right (2.2 percent) and far left (3.4 percent). Those extremes saw the biggest single-year increase in the 35 years the question has been on the survey, perhaps because of the polarized presidential election season of 2004, says Linda Sax, a UCLA professor of education and director of the survey.

Some of the most noticeable changes over the life of the survey have been prompted by the women's movement, Astin says. Women and men are much more similar now than in the 1960s and '70s, in everything from their career interests to their values. One notable difference this year, however: More women (36 percent) than men (16 percent) say they frequently feel overwhelmed by all they have to do.

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