Recently, while ‘surfing the net,’ I came across the following press release from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. In this issue of the DATAWave, I thought that I would compare the results from our students here at Eastern to those at other two-year and four-year colleges and universities. As reported in a previous edition of the DATAWave, the sample of freshman students for 1994 was taken primarily from ACS courses. This may, or may not, have been the most representative group. Where 1994 responses differ significantly from previous years, I will comment. I enjoy the opportunity to respond to issues you may see in the professional literature (if you read higher education sources) or popular press. It is my hope that you will also find this of interest. You will find my comments and Eastern’s results throughout in italics.--amt
This year’s college freshmen are less involved and less interested in politics than any previous entering class, according to the 29th annual national survey of entering freshmen conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.
Nineteen ninety-four was the eighth year that ENMU participated in the CIRP Freshman Survey.
Only 31.9 percent of the Fall 1994 freshmen—lowest in the history of the 29 year survey—say that “keeping up with political affairs” is an important goal in life. This compares to 42.4 percent in 1990 and 57.8 in 1966.
In 1994, 24.7% of ENMU students believed it was important to keep up with politics, down from 1993 (38.8%). In 1990, 40.9% of students agreed in the importance of keeping up with political affairs.
“Considering that the figure from last year—a non-election year— was 37.6 percent, the sharp drop observed during this recent election year is all the more remarkable,” says survey director Alexander W. Astin, professor of higher education at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.
The annual freshman survey, conducted under the continuing sponsorship of the American Council on Education, is the nation’s longest-standing and most comprehensive assessment of student attitudes and plans. This year’s survey covered 333,703 students at 670 two-year and four-year colleges and universities and inquired about such concerns as grade inflation, future career interests, financing college education and student stress.
In 1994, 174 ENMU students participated in the survey. Since 1987, nearly 2,500 ENMU students have taken part in the CIRP Freshman Survey.
On the question of politics, the percentage of freshmen who say they frequently “discuss politics” also reached its lowest point ever this past fall, dropping to 16.0 percent, compared to 18.8 percent the previous year and 24.6 percent in 1992. The highest level of political discussion was registered at 29.9 percent during the 1968 election year.
Likewise, the proportion of students at ENMU was the lowest ever (12.1%), compared with 17% the previous year, and 24.5% in 1992. Nineteen ninety-two, an election year, is the year with the highest measure in ENMU's years of participation in the CIRP Freshman Survey.
Regarding political labels, the number of students calling themselves “middle-of-the-road” was up while the number of liberals and conservatives was down. Support for the legalization of marijuana increased for the fifth straight year, up to 32.1 percent, compared to 28.2 percent in 1993 and 16.7 percent in 1989. “Crime and punishment” issues showed conservative trends including support for abolishing capital punishment, which reached its lowest point in the history of the survey: 20.1 percent, compared to 22.1 percent in 1993 and its high point of 57.6 percent in 1971.
The proportion of conservative, “middle-of-the-road,” and liberal students has remained consistent at ENMU (in 1994, 21.7%, 57.8%, and 20.5% respectively). The support for legalization of marijuana has risen since 1987 (16.7%) among incoming ENMU freshmen (24.9% in 1994; 28.1% in 1993; 14% in 1989). Trends regarding views towards the death penalty are not so clear here at Eastern (the results fluctuate). In 1994, 16.8% were in favor of abolishing the death penalty, which was not as low as 1989 (15.9%) or 1993 (14.9%).
On the academic side, high school “grade inflation” continued unabated, with the number of students reporting “A” averages reaching an all-time high of 28.1 percent, compared to 27.0 in 1993 and only 12.5 percent in 1969. The number reporting “C” averages from high school dropped to an all-time low of 15.5 percent. One-third of the students report that they were frequently “bored in class” during high school.
No such trends towards grade inflation are seen in the results of ENMU participants, and due to sampling concerns, 1994 represents the lowest year on record (16.8%). The percentage of students with “A” averages was 22.9% in 1993. The proportion of “C” average students in 1994 was 25.4%, which is slightly less than in previous years. Thirty-five percent of ENMU incoming freshmen responded that they were frequently bored in class during high school. Later research will determine if students are as bored here at ENMU.
Student interest in medical careers reached an all-time high in the Fall 1994 survey, with 8.9 percent of freshmen indicating they planned on obtaining M.D. degrees. The number compares to 8.4 percent in 1993 and only 4.1 percent in 1969.
Only 4.9% of ENMU students reported the same aspiration, yet 8.5% of 1993 freshmen planned on obtaining M.D. degrees (though for most previous years, the proportion was just over 4.0%).
More women than men plan on medical degrees, which is a major switch since 1966 when men outnumbered women nearly four to one. And interest in engineering careers declined to its lowest point in 19 years.
Here at Eastern, women were much more interested in earning a medical degree (a ratio of 5:2). And at ENMU, interest in Engineering was at its highest level (4.5%), after declining for several years.
Students increasingly are having to borrow in order to finance their college education. Reliance on college loans rose for the eighth time in the past 10 years, while reliance on Perkins loans, Stafford loans, and loans from other sources reached all-time highs.
The data for first-time freshmen at ENMU is not similar to the national trends. For the Perkins Loan, only 4% of participants in the eight years of CIRP Freshman Surveys indicated they expected funding. And though the percentage of students anticipating Stafford Loans was highest in several years (11.4%), this was lower than in 1987 and 1988 (13.9% and 16.1%, respectively).
“Considering these trends,” says Astin, “it is not surprising to find that more students than ever are concerned about college finances.” The percent of students who express doubt about their ability to pay for college reached an all-time high of 18.9 percent, compared to 17.4 percent in 1992 and 8.4 percent in 1968.
More than a third (34.5%) of ENMU students expressed their concern for affording higher education as “major” (an additional 45.5% reported that this concerned them somewhat).
Almost a third (32.8%) of ENMU first-time students in 1994 reported frequently feeling overwhelmed, much higher than 1993 (25.4%), and than the seven year average (23.8%). Though the proportion of students reporting feeling depressed (13.2%) did increase over 1993, the 1993 participants reported the fewest instances of feeling depressed. In comparison to the national trend, reports of depression among incoming students does not yet appear to follow a pattern.
On the behavioral side, tobacco use is up and alcohol use is down. Those reporting frequent smoking rose for the sixth time in the past seven years, 12.5 percent compared to 9.1 percent in 1985. And those reporting drinking beer reached an all-time low of 53.2 percent, compared to 54.4 percent last year and 75.2 percent in 1981.
In 1994, 17.8% of ENMU freshmen reported frequently smoking (compared to the seven year average of 12.3%), and 66.7% reported drinking beer. There is again no discernible pattern regarding the cigarette smoking of ENMU students, though in 1987 fewer students reported drinking beer (68.9%).
Of the total students surveyed for this Fall’s results, 237,777 questionnaires from 461 institutions were used to compute the 1994 national norms. They were statistically adjusted to represent the nation’s population of approximately 1.54 million first-time entering college freshmen. Since 1966, more than 8 million students at more than 1,400 institutions have participated in the survey.
OBSERVATIONS/CONCLUSION: I don’t necessarily suspect that I am any better prepared to summarize the aforementioned comparisons. Neither do I suspect that anyone else is going to step forward to do so. The opportunity to compare our students to national trends is, to me, an exciting one. And this exercise demonstrates what we perhaps already know (more and more I am learning that educational research supports what we intuitively know). We need to have counseling services and other forms of supports for our students....especially financial aid.
It surprised me that so few students anticipated applying for student loans when compared to the 80% of students who have at least some concern about affording higher education. This suggests, in my opinion, a lack of awareness by students of the types and availability of financial aid awards.
I’m also curious about how aware we (administrators, faculty, staff) are of students' feelings toward being overwhelmed. For many of us, it has been a long time since we had to face the challenges of an eighteen-year-old beginning college. Though we are familiar with the student lament, “my instructors assign coursework as if theirs was my only class,” do we understand it?
Figures regarding political orientation and activism should be interpreted with extreme caution for two reasons. First, in a separate analysis, I discovered that students' self-reported views do not necessarily match their political orientation. For example, conservatives were as likely as liberals to support either pro-life or pro-choice points of view. In discussing these findings with staff at HERI, they reported that similar findings were seen in the national sample. Second, what outcomes regarding political orientation and activism are most desirable? Would the development of a firm set of beliefs be considered more ideal than a flexible point of view?
As I review CIRP Freshman Survey data, I am coming increasingly to the opinion that our students are not that unlike the national norm. Yes, there are differences, but not to the degree that we should believe they are uncommon.