Today's freshmen are focused on the future. They are certain they'll finish their degrees in four years, despite evidence to the contrary; they want to land good jobs after graduation; and they increasingly aspire to be well-off.
A greater percentage than ever before said getting a better job was a crucial reason to go to college.
Those are among the many findings of the 2012 Freshman Survey, published on Thursday by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, part of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. The annual survey delves into nearly every aspect of first-year students' lives: study habits, religious beliefs, family income, career goals, even exercise habits. This year's survey was administered last fall to 192,912 first-time, full-time students at 283 four-year colleges and universities.
At a time of public debate over the value of college, the findings reveal heightened expectations that a degree will provide economic security. In 1976 about two-thirds of freshmen said the ability to get a better job was a very important reason to go to college; in 2012, an all-time high of 88 percent said so.
Students also want to earn a good living: This year nearly three in four—the highest proportion on record—said the ability to make more money was a very important reason to go to college.
The tight economy appears to have affected students' values as well as their choice of college, says John H. Pryor, director of the research program. As in the past, a majority of students still said they went to college to get an education and gain an appreciation of ideas. It's just that now, more of them put an even greater value on job-related reasons.
Students know that college is an expensive proposition, Mr. Pryor says. The likelihood of graduating with debt has many feeling that they need to approach college pragmatically.
Of course, this year's report offers a profile of just one freshman class at a time of economic uncertainty and technological innovation. But longitudinal data going back to the early 1970s, for some questions, show both how much and how little college freshmen have changed.
The snapshots below examine students' responses over the years in three areas: the influence of home and family, perceptions of their own skills and abilities, and the educational backgrounds of their parents. Some questions reveal significant shifts; others, hardly any change at all. For colleges trying to understand the students they enroll, there is value in both.