Each year since 1966, UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute has conducted a massive survey of incoming freshmen at four-year colleges, asking questions about their motivations, their plans and their political views. Typically, big shifts are only apparent over long time periods. But sometimes economic and political currents can lead new college students to give responses noticeably different from what their predecessors said.
This year's survey, released Thursday, is based on the responses of 192,912 first-time, full-time students at 283 four-year colleges. The responses are statistically weighted to reflect the broader population of such students — approximately 1.5 million at 1,613 institutions nationally.
Here are some key findings:
—Two-thirds of incoming freshmen (67 percent) said their choice of which college to attend was significantly affected by current economic conditions, up from 62 percent two years ago, when UCLA first asked the question. More are also deciding to live with family or relatives (17 percent, up from 15 percent last year) and fewer in dorms (76 percent, down from 79 percent a year ago).
—About 84 percent expect to graduate from college in four years. In fact, only about half are likely to do so.
—New college students are increasingly career-focused when it comes to what they want out of higher education. Among reasons for attending, getting a better job was the most common response and hit an all-time high of 88 percent, 20 points higher than in the mid-1970s. Other top reasons most students reported include making more money and gaining an appreciation of ideas.
—More than 30 percent of incoming college students reported frequently feeling overwhelmed when they were high school seniors. But there were wide gender gaps: 41 percent of female students said they'd felt overwhelmed, compared to 18 percent of male students.
—Politically, compared to 2008 when President Barack Obama was elected the first time, fewer freshmen now identify as liberal (30 percent, down from 34 percent). More students call themselves middle of the road (47 percent, up from 43 percent) and the number calling themselves conservative is about the same (23 percent).
—Movement has been sharper, though in varying political directions, on specific social issues. Support for same-sex marriage rose to 75 percent, up 4 points from just a year ago and up 24 points from 1997. Among freshmen calling themselves conservative, 47 percent support same-sex marriage, up from 43 percent a year ago. The number who believe abortion should be legal has also increased, from 58 percent in 2008 to 61 percent this year, while 65 percent believe the wealthy should pay higher taxes (up from 60 percent in 2008).
—However, the percentage who said they believe "a national health care plan is needed to cover everybody's medical costs" fell from 70 percent in 2008 to 63 percent this year.