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Following Freshmen


By Kristen Hardy '17

Published Oct 1, 2016 8:00 AM

A lot has changed over the 50 years in which Alexander Astin has chronicled the attitudes of college freshmen.

Left: Dorm life at Sproul Hall, 1984. Right: Current freshmen at Sproul.

In 1966, the first year that UCLA Professor Alexander Astin conducted his now-famous “The American Freshman” survey, few women studied engineering, law, premed or business, and even fewer earned Ph.D.s. The joke was that girls went to college for a “Mrs. Degree” — to find a husband.

But how times have changed. Today, women are on track to be the majority in medicine. And as more women enter politics, we’ll see even more profound societal change, says Astin — just as dramatic change can be seen in a half-century of evolving points of view on such hot-button topics as race and religion.

Astin created the survey at the American Council on Education and continued it at UCLA when he joined the faculty in 1973. To date, about 15 million students, 400,000 faculty and staff, and 1,800 higher education institutions have participated, providing data to researchers, policymakers and the media.

The first survey asked such questions as, “Have you driven a car?” or “Have you listened to New Orleans jazz?” Today’s questions probe how students will pay for college and ask about their attitudes toward religion, politics, sexual orientation and mental health.

Year by year, freshman values have shifted toward materialism — at least in part because of television advertising, according to Astin. The 1960s students valued creating a philosophy of life above all else; today, less than half do. In 1966, 43.8 percent set being “very well off financially” as an essential or very important objective. By 2015, the figure had reached almost 82 percent.

But follow-up studies show that making money becomes less important as students progress through college. Their interests shift toward making a positive impact on the environment and on race relations, and their interest in the arts grows.

Over the years, students have become more polarized in their religious choices. Today, a record high number say they have no religion, and a record high say they belong to a fundamentalist or evangelical group. Mainstream Protestants and Catholics show a decline. In 1966, 6.6 percent of freshmen stated that they had no religion; by 2015, the number was almost 30 percent. The number who reported being Protestant fell from 54.8 percent in 1966 to 37.5 in 2015. Those reporting being Catholic fell from 28 to 24 percent.

This shift is largely a result of organized religion’s attitude toward issues of gender identity and homosexuality, says Astin. Throughout history, he says, “there has never been a faster and more profound change in people’s attitudes about some important social issue than with homosexuality. There are young people even in evangelical groups who support full rights for homosexuals.”

In fact, he adds, the modern incarnation of the freshman survey reveals that homophobia and racism are “sort of alien” to today’s youth.