Higher Education Watch
Today’s College Freshmen Are…

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a new web tool for exploring trends in the attitudes and opinions of incoming American college freshmen as measured by UCLA’s nationwide freshman survey. During the survey’s lifetime, the demographics of higher education have changed significantly—a larger share of high school graduates (especially women) attend college today than in 1972. So it’s impossible to say for sure which changes are the result of the UCLA survey’s changing sample composition, and which are the result of broader cultural shifts among young people. Nonetheless, few of the changes say particularly encouraging things about the future of America’s middle and upper classes. Here are some of the results we found interesting.

More polarized:

Fewer students identify as “middle of the road” politically than at any time in the survey’s history; “far right” and “far left” identifications, while still marginal, are at their highest ever. And while Obama-era prognosticators said that today’s young generation would inaugurate a permanent liberal majority; it’s noteworthy that the share of students identifying as “liberal” today is lower than it was in the early 1970s, in the heat of youthful Boomer protest movements. The Boomers, of course, moved significantly to the right as they grew older. It’s impossible to predict the future, but these trends don’t give any reason to think that we can avoid continued polarization and division.

More stressed out:

The share of freshmen who say they were “frequently overwhelmed” during the past year nearly doubled from 18 percent in 1985 to 34 percent in 2015. This might be evidence for Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s “coddling” thesis about how young people are raised today—ordinary problems might be pathologized with greater frequency; once-routine responsibilities might be seen as excessive. It’s also possible that the rising stress among young people is related to family breakdown or social atomization or hyper-competition at elite high schools.

Less interested in the humanities:

Interest in a humanities major among freshmen has declined gradually over the course of the survey, from 17 percent in 1971 to 11 percent today. (The number who actually go on to get a humanities major is much lower; according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, just 6.1 of BAs awarded in 2014 were in humanities fields, “the lowest level since record-keeping began in 1948.”) Some of this might be a healthy adaptation to the skills demanded in the workforce; the number of physical and life science majors, for example, has soared in the past several years. But the intellectual impoverishment and politicization of the liberal arts has probably also played a role in turning students away from them.

And…

  • More confident in their open-mindedness: In 2008, 65 percent of incoming freshmen said they rated themselves “above average or better in terms of … ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective”; today that number is 77 percent. Similarly, there has been seven point uptick in the share of freshmen who say they are more tolerant than average of people with different beliefs. Needless to say, the self-assessment of these students has been … called into question by some of the campus antics of the past few years.
  • More confident in their academic ability73 percent of students said they were above average academically in 2016, compared to 69 percent in 2006 and 67 percent in 1996. It’s probably true that most people going to college do have above average academic skills compared to everyone else their age, but the steady increase testifies to a cultural shift.
  • Less spiritual: 36 percent rated themselves at least “above average” in terms of spirituality, a figure that has been more or less consistent since 2010. But around the turn of the century, it was significantly higher; 45 percent rated themselves more spiritual than average in 2000. This tracks the decline in religiosity in America as a whole—a decline that, as Peter Beinart argued last month in the Atlantic, has probably made our political debates more corrosive.
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