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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.


  • 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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  • Angel Martin

    “73 percent of students said they were above average academically in 2016, compared to 69 percent in 2006 and 67 percent in 1996. ”

    Now this is the real Dunning-Kruger effect (not the “Anthony” version).

    • Fred

      Oh I don’t know. Seems to me Anthony is the poster boy for Dunning-Kruger and illustrates it beautifully in every comment he makes.

    • Anthony

      There’s only one version and it applies where applicable. Like you most want to project it subjectively (shades of truth – human beings produce rationales they believe account for their judgments).

      • Fred

        Hit another nerve did we?

      • Makaden

        Anthony, just a practical tip. If your writing was less stilted and you demonstrated a real commitment to radically reducing your use of parenthetical notations, it would be easier to engage with you.

        • Anthony

          Appreciate the tip Makaden (honestly). But I’m not writing to engage. and any whose choose to have never had trouble over last ten years. Still, thanks for time.

          • Fred

            Don’t know where you get your information, but I’m not 60 yet. Does seem though, that I hit yet another nerve.

        • Fred

          Lord Anthony does not engage. He distributes his wisdom and those who dare question it suffer vague empty threats and silly, pseudo-scientific ad hominems. Beware blasphemer against Lord Anthony!

          • solstice

            At least Lord Anthony actually exists and does not threaten those who disbelieve in Him with eternal fire torture as your imaginary Jewish zombie cult deity lord jesus does.

          • Fred

            Solstice, I recognized a long time ago that arguing with your fanaticism, ignorance, and outright stupidity is futile, but for a while, it was fun to beat up on you. That’s now got boring. So if appending your idiocy to my commments makes you happy, by all means continue to do so. But until such time as you actually say something intelligent or refraining gets more boring than beating up on you, don’t expect a response.

          • solstice

            Hit another nerve did we? But what else can we expect from a grown adult who organizes his life around fairy tales, imaginary friends, and a sadomasochistic Middle Eastern cult? And your characterizations don’t even rise to the level of of straw man, just more nyah nyah, but I don’t expect you to recognize that because you lack the grey matter and are utterly unversed in philosophy and history. Read a damned book.

    • RedWell

      Meh. Most people think they are above average drivers. It happens.

      In the realm of motivated reasoning, I’d rather like to know why this post is worried about less interest in the humanities, which is read as a general decline in intellectualism. When it comes to higher ed, much of I what read around here is about the need for STEM and practical majors. Humanities majors are ridiculed for being impractical, then we worry about declining intellectualism when they get the message. Which fret should I be fretting about the most?

      • Angel Martin

        Regardless of the practicalities, I think the main issue with the Humanities is that the standards of teaching and research have degenerated so much that in many cases it no longer qualifies as scholarship.

        Once you denounce the entire Western canon as an ideology of oppression, dismiss facts as theoretical constructs, ignore the rules of logic as racist, classist etc. … there isn’t much left.

        At this point when I argue that insanity is repeating all the mistakes of ancient Rome – and expecting a different outcome. The typical response is to accuse me of being racist sexist, classist, homophobic for thinking the West is decadent. And to accuse me of being something like “Paganphobic” to suggest that ancient Rome was decadent.

        • Makaden

          Ha! Paganphobic. That is grand!

  • Andrew Allison

    I’m confused. “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 “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. ” Surely it’s clear from the intolerance displayed on Campuses across the country that the latter proposition is nonsensical.

    • D4x

      Reverse implicit bias? More Benetton ad exposure? No, more likely part of that fundamental transformation that started in 2009 coupled with peer pressure. They believe they ARE better able to see the world from…

      Of course, there is the Rise of Rihanna, from her first Grammy in 2008 to her 2017 Met Gala fashion. Sorry, can not bring myself to post the two photos here. My eyes, my eyes…

    • Boritz

      In the past there was the belief that there existed experiential barriers to seeing the world as others did. Today the close to half of the population to the right of the New York Times is easily understood as motivated by hate so it has never been easier to understand a large segment of the population.

    • RedWell

      …or the notion of “intolerance displayed on Campuses across the country” is a narrative based on some dramatic examples and not reality. I think Occam would favor this explanation.

    • Many young liberals of my generation tolerate only left-wing ideas…both the professors and the students of my private university were strongly hostile against even mildly conservative political views that contrasted with their ingrained beliefs.

  • FriendlyGoat

    Fewer parents are “middle of the road”, so fewer kids are “middle of the road”. Who knew?

    • Anthony

      This is a done deal but you may find interest in “Media’s” knowing or unknowing contribution: https//

      • FriendlyGoat

        Thanks. The independent Comey effect is not knowable. All that is worth remembering from this is that Comey has proven he is a Republican who never should have been appointed in a Dem era. It is clear to me that he did all he could to flip the results of Clinton’s potential election after determining there was nothing to prosecute. Obama probably meant well in trying to be bi-partisan with the FBI, but the thanks for that was an obvious double-cross.
        In today’s polarized climate, I do not trust one single person who identifies as GOP. Comey was trusted too much. The media did what media does, of course—–over-react, which was a compounding factor

        Meanwhile, Dems need to realize that the Evangelicals flipped MI/WI/PA with their 81% Trump votes which amounted to more than 25 times the margin in those three states. Reducing that bloc to 75% would likely have installed Mrs. Clinton. Reducing it to 70% absolutely would have. So, “touchy” as the Dems might find this subject, they need to get real about WHO in the USA is mis-educated, WHO made this gigantic mess and WHO they have to either flip or defeat in the future.

        I still have another long article you referred and will get back to you on it.
        Thanks, again.

        • Anthony

          You’re welcome and I understand your frustration – and your disappointment with the 81%. I agree that Obama erred but now we are where we are. Just keep zeroing in and shedding “light”. The reality of governing and its effects (policies) has a way of sobering the most indifferent and then that “touchy” matter may acquire focus.

          • FriendlyGoat

            Yes, it might—–maybe even from two sides at once.

  • Anthony

    Too facile an analysis and perhaps an example of the data fitting the looked for outcome.

  • seattleoutcast

    One interesting takeaway from these statistics is that these students might give their children fewer responsibilities and more freedom because they see themselves as overworked. This is what Howe and Strauss predicted. All of those Dr Spock books could get a reprint.

    Let the pendulum swing again.

  • PierrePendre

    Americans have a strange obsession with the prospect of permanent political majorities based on speculative projections from contemporary situations. James Carville can tell you all about how well the theory works. What genuine democracy has ever had a permanent majority representing one side of the political divide? Permanent majorities have existed only in one-party systems because such an arrangement is the sine qua non of their permanence. When voters can make relative comparisons, they make relative choices. European democracies have elections at 4-5 year intervals to give governing party policies an opportunity to prove themselves but then it’s back to the ballot box so that voters can judge the results or take account of changed circumstances. The US congressional system of elections every two years gives voters more opportunity to confirm or change their choices. When one considers the history of permanent majorities, the idea that anyone other than a political careerist would want to live in one is frankly weird.

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