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Four Decades of Freshmen Data

June 12, 2007

According to a recent report released by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, college freshmen today come from increasingly wealthier households. The median family income of today's freshmen is 60 percent higher than the national average, compared to 46 percent higher in 1971. Further, parental incomes of students entering public colleges are rising at a faster rate than that of the parents of students entering independent colleges. 

The report, "American Freshmen: Forty-Year Trends, 1966-2006," documents the changing nature of college freshmen demographics, values, and attitudes, using data collected over a 40-year period from 8.3 million students at more than 1,200 colleges.

Personal Objectives
The most important life objective for today's entering freshmen is "raising a family" followed by "being well off financially."  These goals have been consistently the two most important over the past 20 years.  Interestingly, the growth in the importance of this latter objective occurred primarily from 1966 to 1987 (increasing from 42 percent to 74 percent of respondents identifying it as a top choice) and has remained relatively stable since then.  During the same time period, the focus on "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" declined.  In 2006, "helping others in difficulty" ranked third, the highest it’s been as a priority in 20 years.

College Applications and Reasons to Attend College
Over the past 40 years, the median number of college applications submitted by a student increased from two to four.  In 1967, 43 percent of students submitted only one application, compared to the approximately 18 percent who applied to only one institution in 2006. The top two reasons to attend college have remained the same for the past 30 years--“to learn about things that interest me" and "to get a better job." One interesting trend is the increasing focus on being "able to make more money" as a reason to attend college. In 1976, about half of incoming freshmen indicated that this was a very important reason to go to college, compared to 69 percent in 2006. 

Political Polarization and Religious Affiliation
Students are becoming more politically polarized, labeling themselves as either liberal or conservative, while moderates are in decline. The percentage of students self-identifying as conservative is at an all-time high (24%) and the percentage self-identifying as liberals (28%) is the highest since the mid-seventies. There has also been a shift in students’ views on religion, as the proportion of students claiming no religious affiliation has increased, from nearly 14 percent to 19 percent between 1966 and 2006.

Visit the Higher Education Research Institute Web site to order a full copy of the report or to view the summary Powerpoint slides. For other reports on student demographics, visit the Faculty, Staff, and Student Demographics Web page on the NACUBO Web site.