What Today’s College Freshmen Think

If you follow higher education stories in the media, if you listen to consultants, or if you hear speeches from university administrators, you know that today’s students are different than those in past generations. They are primarily concerned about jobs more than liberal arts. They are narcissistic and materialistic. In short, they’ve made education a means to an end, so we in higher education simply need to adapt to the new realities or face extinction.

This rhetoric is hard to reconcile with those things we call facts.

HERILast Thursday, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA (one of the premier sources on university life in the world) released their annual Freshmen survey. As the Chronicle of Higher Education explains, the survey reports on “153,015 first-time, full-time freshmen at 227 baccalaureate institutions”.

The Chronicle story included some interactive charts and linked to more interactive charts here. Naturally, I spent some time yesterday playing with them. What I found paints a much more complicated picture than we normally hear. At the risk of upsetting the Chronicle’s lawyers, I’ve taken some screenshots of the charts to illustrate my point.

So what about the claim that today’s students think college is all about jobs and money? If you look at the one-year cross-sectional data you learn that 82% of today’s freshmen think college is about jobs and 72% think it’s about making more money. But if you look at the longitudinal data, you find that this isn’t a new phenomenon at all.

Better Job  I know the numbers are hard to figure out, but the interactive chart allows you to hover over a column and find out what the exact percentage was for that year. It is true that the percentage of freshmen focused on jobs is now over 80% and has been since the Great Recession (could it be because we’ve been telling them that? — talking to you Mr. Obama!). But it’s been running just above 70% for the life of the survey. There is only one year when that percentage was below 70% (1976 was 67.8%). So while there has been an increase, it’s a matter of degree and not a stark change in ideology.

MoneyIf anything, the college and money connection is even more stable that the jobs data. The percentage agreeing that “making more money” is why you go to college crossed the 70% line in 1988 and hovered either side of that mark for the next 16 years. The post-Recession surveys show a minimally higher percentage but it’s only an increase of less than 5%. It has long been true that a college education increases lifetime earnings and a student needs to be aware of that.

The stability in these two charts is even more remarkable when you consider the increase in the college bound population (measured as a percentage of high school graduates) and the demise of the job market for those with only high school diplomas. It would be reasonable to see an increase in both measures in light of the reality of higher education’s gatekeeping function.

But students today don’t really care about learning, right? They are mostly concerned with gaining a credential they can trade for future success. That’s what the never-ending drumbeat of “is college worth it” posts seem to suggest. Why would there ever be a need for residential liberal arts colleges?

Gen EdThis chart shows the percentage of students agreeing that the purpose of college was “to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas”. Not only is it relatively stable, but the data for recent years is higher that it has been since the late 1970s.

I’ve been teaching long enough to know that these attitudes reported at registration don’t always play themselves out in daily practice. But it’s clear that students have a much better grasp on what to expect from college than we credit them with.

One more test of the common wisdom. We often hear that today’s students are interested in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and that liberal arts are old hat. The HERI survey asked students their intended major (which is not an accurate measure of their final major as many will change along the way).

MajorsThis is called a “stacked column” graph and can be slightly distorted. Because all the percentages must add to 100%, an increase in one area is matched by a decrease in one or more other fields. But it does paint a picture of how things change over time.

Some areas seem to have a more stable presence among students and change fairly slowly. Others show something of a “wave” motion that allows us to see the growth of a popular area and its subsequent decline.

To see this work, I hovered the cursor over various colors and moved left to right. Arts and Humanities shows a strong sense of stability, although falls off slightly in the last couple of years. Social sciences are fairly stable over time, ranging from 10% to 13% over the last 30 years. On the other hand, we can see a burst of interest in Business majors in the late 1980s before it re-establishes at a level about 10% down from its high point. Education shows some significant growth during the 1990s but faces serious losses over the last 5-6 years (which our campus enrollments reflect). There has been a marked increase in Physical and Life Sciences in the last four years but time will tell whether this is a shift or simply a bulge more like Business and Education showed in the past.

It seems to me that students are deeply aware of issues of vocation and calling and not simply chasing the hot new job area. They may be aware of limitations in certain job sectors (e.g., education) but still place a high value on areas of personal strength and interest.

I’m glad that HERI gathers this data each year.

But my takeaway is that if we want to know what today’s college freshmen think: it’s pretty much what college freshmen have thought over the last 40 years.

Maybe the quality of higher education would be easier to demonstrate if we stopped chasing our tails about supposed new trends and paid more attention the students sitting in front of us each day.

Governor McCrory, please meet Mr. Buechner

Higher Ed sources were abuzz this week when North Carolina governor Pat McCrory told Bill Bennett that he wanted to focus on education that led to jobs instead of the liberal arts. Specifically, he contrasted programs that lead to jobs with pursuing things like gender studies (which Bennett had been mocking). In the interview, McCrory suggested that “educational elites” are encouraging programs that won’t lead to jobs. This last bit paints a horrendous picture of faculty members, suggesting that we delight in our students pursuing liberal arts programs that won’t lead to jobs.

Many other people have blogged on McCrory’s remarks over the past few days. Inside Higher Ed’s Matt Reed (formerly Dean Dad) had one of the better autobiographical responses. Reed describes the ways in which his own liberal arts education benefitted him. He goes on to recount what data has shown for years — employers (read “job creators”) are looking for the skill sets that liberal arts provides. There really is little evidence of a decided advantage in majoring in the “get me a job” major without the breadth of experience and perspective that makes liberal arts education unique. (BTW, most accrediting agencies require that accredited institutions provide some breadth of general education programming). Others have rightly pointed out how having students aware of issues in gender studies could be of great value as we navigate the challenges of modern society (did the governor watch any news during the 2012 election cycle?).

This focus on jobs instead of preparation for the future is negatively impacting educational institutions, including and maybe especially Christian universities. We’re regularly told that parents are concerned about student loans and that we need to be prepared to share our “success stories”. I’m an idealist, but I happen to believe that all of our graduates are successes. Almost none of them wind up like Chris Farley’s character “living in a van down by the river”. Admittedly, college has gotten more expensive relative to inflation but it still reflects an amazing return on  investment. Data consistently shows that lifetime earnings for those with college degrees far exceeds those with only high school degrees. We’ve been telling our students that since they were young, so it’s no surprise that they have expectations of getting jobs when they finish their education.

The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA conducts an annual freshman survey, exploring attitudes toward social issues, study skills in high school, and reasons for going to college. Here is the graph on reasons for college attendance from their 2012 survey.


The chart shows the changes over the last 36 years on three reasons why students go to college. Students are asked to evaluate a variety of reasons in terms of their importance. it’s critical to recognize that these aren’t mutually exclusive categories: they could rate all reasons as very important. The data shows some significant increase in those interested in better jobs and minor increases in terms of making money and general education. What strikes me is the relative stability of these three factors from 1982 to 2006 — not only are they all important but they are still supported as “Very Important” by over 60% of college freshmen. While it does appear that the economic downturn and college debt issues have pushed the job numbers up, the general education numbers went up as well, gaining roughly 10 percentage points in less than a decade.

I got some anecdotal insights into this tension in my senior liberal arts capstone class Monday night. I had them in groups trying to explain the SAU mission statement to a high school freshman. One of the groups responsible for “the study and application of the liberal arts” explained that breadth is good because you find things out about yourself along the way and might even switch majors to something you’re passionate about. I asked about the oft-repeated meme that general education courses were boring and nobody wanted them. The student responded that sometimes that particular course didn’t work for you but did for someone else. It was a wonderful testimony to why we study a variety of fields — even gender studies!

Embracing the liberal arts is especially important at a Christian university. We live in community and interact with others whose interests differ from ours. We have to know how to navigate that reality and we learn to do that through courses, chapel, and cafeteria conversations. Along the way, we’re expecting a light to turn on, for a student to say “I know what I’m called to do”. That’s not about their job but about their life.

Frederick Buechner puts it best. In his book, Wishful Thinking, he defines vocation like this: It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a person is called to by God. … By and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done.

Governor McCrory (and those other job-obsessed folks like him) meet Frederick Buechner. Please.