Freshmen now more liberal, especially young women

The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2016, Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2017.


The American Freshman national survey of 137,456 first-year students in 2016 reported that 19% of respondents are first-generation students whose parents never attended college and 1,147 were in foster care after age 13. Students are more politically polarized than since the survey began 51 years ago: 42% are middle-of-the road, 35.5% are liberal or far left, and 22% said their beliefs are conservative or far right. The conservatives are less likely than liberals to call themselves tolerant of diverse beliefs (68% vs. 87%). This polarity is accompanied by the highest political involvement ever; 51% of students feel that keeping informed about political issues and involved with them is very important and 27% have a life goal of “influencing the political structure.” However, only about half of eligible 18 to 29 year olds voted in the 2016 presidential election.

As the unemployment rate has fallen, so has the number of students motivated to attend college to get a good job, down from a high of 88% in 2012 to 85% in 2016. An all-time high of 75% of students said that getting a general education and appreciation of ideas was very important to them (and 47% said visiting a campus was important in their decision about where to attend college). Pleasing their family by going to college was especially motivating for nearly half (46%) of first-generation college students. About three-quarters of both groups of students plan on earing a graduate degree.

The gender gap is also the widest ever: Young women are more liberal than men, 41% vs. 29%. Women are more likely to advocate that climate change should be a government priority—82% vs. 78%, and to advocate stricter gun control laws—75% vs. 59%. Women are slightly more likely than men to say they are tolerant of people with different beliefs than their own and that they can work well with diverse people. However, men are more likely to believe that can discuss controversial issues and are open to having their beliefs challenged. Women are more worried than men about how to finance their college education (66% vs. 34%).

Another first in the survey history, less than half (47%) of students think their mental health is above average, compared to their peers. A record percentage felt frequently depressed during the past year (12%); 34.5% experienced frequent anxiety; 11% reported having a “psychological disorder” such as depression or autism spectrum; and about 16% have a disability such as a vision or learning disability. About one-half of 1% of students (702) identitfy as transgender. More students have “complex mental health concerns” than ever before and are more willing to get counseling. Their rating of social self-confidence as compared to their peers fell to 46% of students, while 53% rated their physical health as above average. Another record high, 41% of students reported using online social networks for at least six hours a week and more lived with their parents (18.5%).


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