Perceptions of Self

January 24, 2013

Like their predecessors, most of this year's freshmen consider themselves a cut above their classmates academically. Sixty-nine percent rated their academic ability either above average or in the top 10 percent compared with their peers.

Freshman Survey

This Year, Even More Focused on Jobs

A greater percentage than ever before said getting a better job was a crucial reason to go to college.

Statistical Snapshots

How Far Away They Go to College

How They See Themselves

What Degrees Their Parents Earned


Backgrounds and Beliefs of College Freshmen

But those self-assessments "don't track well either with their abilities or with what they've learned," says Arthur Levine, author of Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today's College Student and a former president of Columbia University's Teachers College. Part of the reason, he says: Parents coddle their children, and colleges inflate their grades.

"It reaffirms the notion that students are all better than average," Mr. Levine says. "It denies them a realistic assessment of who they are."

Meanwhile, as first-year students have grown more confident in their intellect and their leadership ability, they've become less secure in their physical and emotional health. This year's freshmen posted the lowest ratings of physical and emotional well-being of any group since 1985, when researchers began asking. In 2012, 55 percent of freshmen rated themselves either above average or in the top 10 percent for physical health, and 52 percent did so for emotional health. In 1985, those proportions were at 64 percent in both categories.

Other research lines up with the students' reports: The American College Health Association found last year that one-fifth of students didn't exercise at all, and that more than one-third were overweight. Meanwhile, nearly half of students said their overall level of stress was above average, and 87 percent said they had felt overwhelmed at some point in the previous year, the health association reported.

The Freshman Survey began asking students in 1999 to rate their computer skills relative to their peers'. Their responses suggest that they set a high bar for comparison. This year only 35 percent of freshmen considered themselves above average or in the top tenth in computer skills; in previous surveys, that proportion has never climbed higher than 40 percent.

How can it be that students who've grown up with technology at their fingertips feel so humble about their ability to use it? Mr. Levine, who in his research has surveyed and interviewed tens of thousands of college students over the years, says one in a recent focus group helped him see the distinction. "It's only technology," the student told him, "if it happens after you're born."