What Sets Today’s College Freshmen Apart?
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US News best collegesU.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings are out, and they paint a picture of an ever more competitive game for college hopefuls. This year, the eight top schools in U.S. News’s national university rankings all had acceptance rates below ten percent.

But living in a time of historically competitive standards for admission to college is far from the only thing that defines today’s college freshman. And if you’re wondering what else sets this generation of college entrants apart, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute has a report that answers that question in comprehensive detail.

Every year the Higher Education Research Institute conducts a survey of incoming freshmen, asking them about everything from their attitudes toward school to their future plans to their political views. This year’s report isn’t out yet, but here are some interesting insights from the freshman cohort of fall 2016.

Students Weigh School Prestige, Job Prospects, Cost When Choosing a College

With the annual flurry of activity around the release of U.S. News’s college rankings, it’s worth taking a minute to recognize just how important reputation and prestige are when students sit down and pick a school. In fact, 65 percent of students said that academic reputation was “very important” in choosing a school, making it the factor most commonly considered by high school seniors in picking a college to attend.

That said, only 18 percent of students said “rankings in national magazines” were a very important criterion in deciding on their college. This finding suggests that while students care about what kind of reputation a school has, they’re considering factors other than college rankings to make that determination.

Besides academic prestige, how a given school’s alumni fair on the job market was important to students. Fifty-five percent of students surveyed said that whether their college’s graduates “get good jobs” was a very important factor in their decision (which, of course, isn’t entirely unrelated to the school’s academic prestige!).

Naturally, students were concerned not just with the prestige of their degree and their future employment prospects, but what their college experience would be like too. Fifty-one percent of students said whether their college had “a good reputation for its social and extracurricular activities” was very important.

Finally, cost was a factor that weighed heavily into many students decisions. Forty-seven percent said cost was a very important factor in opting for the college they chose, and 47 percent said being offered financial aid was a very important factor. Moreover, 15 percent of students said they chose the college they did because they simply couldn’t afford their first choice, and 11 percent because they were not offered financial aid by their first choice.

Other very important factors in students’ decisions appear to include school size, record of graduate school placement, and wanting to live near home. Overall, the results of the survey show that while a range of factors are important to different students, incoming freshman as a whole are especially concerned with striking a balance between school reputation, job prospects and cost.

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Today’s High School Seniors Are More Overwhelmed Than Ever Before

One of the more telling parts of the annual freshman survey is when students are asked about whether they frequently engaged in a variety of different behaviors in the past year.

Many of the results in this section of the survey are encouraging. For example, 61 percent tutored another student occasionally or frequently over the last year, and 87 percent occasionally or frequently performed volunteer work. On the other hand, only 5 percent frequently consumed beer. Meanwhile, only 8 percent were frequently late to class, only 5 percent frequently failed to complete homework on time, and only 6 percent frequently fell asleep during class.

stressAlthough today’s college-bound students are clearly fairly conscientious, though, it appears that their mental health is suffering. For example, 41 percent of students reported frequently feeling overwhelmed over the course of the last year. And 34 percent of students frequently felt anxious.

Compared to past data, these numbers reveal that this generation may be the most stressed out cohort of high school seniors in the history of the annual freshman survey. For example, in an infographic titled A Few Telling Freshman Trends, the New York Times points out that the portion of students who reported frequently feeling overwhelmed in the last year has risen from 18 percent in 1985 to 41 percent this year. Along the same lines, the portion who rate their mental health as average or above average has fallen from 64 percent to 47 percent.

What the survey doesn’t tell us is why so many students feel this way. But one thing’s for sure: while there are a lot of promising trends in the survey, this drop in mental health is one data point we should be very concerned about.

Political Polarization Among College Freshmen Is at an All-Time High

Given the times we live in, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the latest crop of college freshmen is the most politically polarized in the history of the survey. Only 42 percent of students described themselves as “middle of the road” politically, lower than any other year.

Some of this polarization seems to be taking place along gender lines. While 41 percent of women describe themselves as either “liberal” or “far-left,” only 29 percent of men identify that way.

The upside of this polarization is that it could reflect growing civic involvement more generally. Forty-six percent of students now say they consider following politics “very important” or “essential,” more than ever before. And the majority (65 percent) say they are open to having their political views challenged.

There are also some issues today’s college freshmen do seem to agree on. For example, 80 percent believe that the federal government should make addressing climate change a priority.

Generally, then, the results suggest that while today’s freshmen are more politically polarized than any other class in the last five decades, they do share some common ground as well as a more general attitude than political involvement is personally important.

Making Money and Helping Others Are Both Priorities

So when we get down to it, and put aside the politics and the stress, what do today’s students actually want out of life? Most commonly, they want to make a lot of money and help other people.

When asked what objectives they consider “essential” or “very important,” 82 percent of students chose “being very well off financially” and 77 said “helping others who are in difficulty.” This suggests that freshmen are motivated both to succeed financially and to give back to society.

Seventy-two percent said that raising a family was a key life goal for them. Other common objectives ranged from “improving my understanding of other countries and cultures” (59 percent) to “becoming an authority in my field” (59 percent) to “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” (47 percent).

The answers to this question in the survey might tell us more about what today’s freshmen have in common with previous generations of college students rather than what sets them apart. For all the ways their college experience is different, the majority of today’s college students are still driven by traditional goals: making money, raising a family, and helping other people. For more results from the survey, see the full report.