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Wed., Jan. 14, 1998

A survey of college freshmen confirms what professors and administrators said they have been sensing, that students are increasingly disengaged and view higher education less as an opportunity to expand their minds and more as a means to increase their incomes.

The annual nationwide poll by researchers at UCLA shows that two suggested goals of education - “to be very well off financially” and “to develop a meaningful philosophy of life” - have switched places in the past three decades.

In the survey taken at the start of the fall semester, 74.9 percent of freshmen chose being well off as an essential goal and 40.8 percent chose developing a philosophy. In 1968, the numbers were reversed, with 40.8 percent selecting financial security and 82.5 percent citing the importance of developing a philosophy.

It is a matter of using education more as a means to an end, rather than valuing what you are learning, said Linda Sax, director of the survey at the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. The survey was first taken 32 years ago.

The trend has long been in the making, with students’ strong interest in high incomes rising to a plateau in the mid-1980s. But the desire edged down a bit through the 1990s, rising again slightly with this latest survey.

Sax said the trend took on more significance when added to the fact that incoming students showed unprecedented levels of academic and political disengagement.

The percentage of students who said that during their last year in high school they had been frequently “bored in class” hit a record high of 36 percent, compared with 26.4 percent in 1985, the second year the question was asked.

At the same time, a record 34.5 percent said they had “overslept and missed class,” compared with a low of 18.8 percent in 1968.

Despite that, a record high of 39.4 percent said they aspired to obtain a master’s degree, and 49.7 percent said they expected to earn a B average.

Some professors expressed little surprise when told of the seemingly contradictory mix of boredom and ambition.

“Schooling has become more about training and less about transformation,” said Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia who wrote of the growing consumerist view of education by students in the September issue of Harper’s magazine.

“You go there to prepare yourself for the future,” Edmundson said, “to learn a skill, a capacity that you can convert into dollars later on. And being trained is boring. Being educated is not, but that is going on less and less.”

The disengagement was also reflected in attitudes toward politics.

A record low 26.7 percent of freshmen thought that “keeping up to date with political affairs” was a very important or essential life goal, compared with 29.4 percent in 1996 and a high of 57.8 percent in 1966.

Similarly, an all-time low 13.7 percent said they frequently discussed politics, compared with 16.2 percent last year and a high of 29.9 percent in 1968.

Advocating social activism, which declined in the 1980s and then rose again in the early 1990s, again appears to be on the wane.

The percentage of students who said that “becoming involved in programs to clean up the environment” was an important life goal declined to 19.4 percent from 33.6 percent in 1992.

Commitment to “helping to promote racial understanding” fell to its lowest point in a decade, 31.8 percent, compared with 34.7 percent in 1996 and a high of 42 percent in 1992.

The survey, sponsored by the American Council on Education, included 348,465 students at 665 two- and four-year colleges and universities in the United States. The data were statistically adjusted to be representative of the 1.6 million students entering as first-time full-time freshmen last fall.

The enormous size of the sample means that even shifts of a half percentage point have statistical significance, its authors said.

Alexander Astin, director of the Higher Education Research Institute and founder of the survey, said he thought the growth in materialism, boredom and disengagement stemmed at least partly from television watching.

“Kids who started college in the late ‘60s had much less television,” Astin said. “Today’s kids never didn’t have it. We tracked freshmen of 1985 for four years to see how much TV they watched during college. The more TV they watched, the more their materialistic tendencies were strengthened.”

Daniel Cheever, president of Simmons College in Boston, said the apparent increase in materialism may also have to do with the rise in the cost of college education.

“What my education is going to do for me in getting me a job becomes more important,” he said.

Lee Bollinger, president of the University of Michigan, took exception to the prevailing view of freshmen. “I have come to the conclusion that this is a quieter and softer but no less dedicated generation of students toward their education and public affairs,” he said.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FRESHMAN ATTITUDES Other highlights of UCLA’s annual survey of college freshmen nationwide:

Academics A record-high 36 percent reported being frequently bored in class during their last year of high school, compared with the all-time low of 26 percent in 1985. A record-high 39 percent plan to obtain master’s degrees and a record 15 percent plan to obtain doctorates.

Gay rights The percentage of those who believe that “it is important to have laws prohibiting homosexual relationships” increased to 34 percent, the second increase in a row. Fifty percent, however, said that “same sex couples should have the right to legal marital status.”

This sidebar appeared with the story: FRESHMAN ATTITUDES Other highlights of UCLA’s annual survey of college freshmen nationwide:

Academics A record-high 36 percent reported being frequently bored in class during their last year of high school, compared with the all-time low of 26 percent in 1985. A record-high 39 percent plan to obtain master’s degrees and a record 15 percent plan to obtain doctorates.

Gay rights The percentage of those who believe that “it is important to have laws prohibiting homosexual relationships” increased to 34 percent, the second increase in a row. Fifty percent, however, said that “same sex couples should have the right to legal marital status.”


 

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