45 Years of Survey Data Show First-Year Students' Financial Concerns Are on the Rise

March 13, 2012

Today's freshmen are more focused on the financial benefits of a college education than were their counterparts four decades ago. Freshmen now are also more racially and ethnically diverse, harbor higher expectations for the college experience, and are increasingly interested in pursuing graduate degrees.

Those are among the findings of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, part of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, which will soon issue a wide-ranging examination of 45 years of responses to its annual Freshman Survey. John H. Pryor, director of the program, which is known as CIRP, revealed some key findings of the forthcoming report here on Tuesday at the annual meeting of Naspa—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Some answers haven't changed much over time. An institution's academic reputation, for instance, has remained the most important factor students consider in choosing where to go to college. That was the case even before the advent of national magazine rankings, Mr. Pryor pointed out, which appear to have little bearing on students' decisions.

A college's ability to help students land a well-paying job after graduation, however, has risen in importance, the survey has shown. And financial aid has increasingly influenced where students decide to go: In the early 1970s, about 20 percent of first-year students said a financial-aid offer had played a significant role in their college choice. In the most recent survey, around 40 percent of students said so.

A greater focus on jobs and money is evident in several areas of the sprawling survey, which has been polling first-year students since 1966 on a battery of questions about their habits, beliefs, and goals. Students are using more sources now to pay for college and relying more heavily on loans. They are also more likely than ever before to have at least one parent who is unemployed.

"The focus on jobs and a career," Mr. Pryor predicted, "is something we're going to hear more about."

Among the report's other preliminary findings:

  • Only one in five freshmen now thinks his or her postsecondary education will end with a bachelor's degree. (In 1972, more than three in five did.) Today, 42 percent hope to obtain a master's degree (up from 32 percent in 1972), and just over a third anticipate earning a Ph.D. (up from 26 percent).
  • More students now aspire to careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, although business still tops their list of desirable careers—just as it did four decades ago.
  • The percentage of students who have reported drinking beer, wine, or liquor during their senior year of high school has dropped steadily over the decades. In 1984, about 70 percent of students said they drank in high school; by 2011, that figure had dropped to about 40 percent.
  • Students' self-rated emotional health is at a record low, with respondents more likely now than in previous decades to say they are overwhelmed, stressed, or depressed.

The full report will be available later this spring.