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Poll Says College
Freshmen Lean Left
By REBECCA TROUNSON, TIMES EDUCATION WRITER
More college freshmen today describe themselves as politically
liberal than at any time since the Vietnam War, a nationwide
survey by UCLA researchers has found.
A resurgence of liberalism among U.S. freshmen also is
reflected in their shifting attitudes on a range of hot-button
political and social issues, according to survey results
"It's a real change, a broad-based trend toward greater
liberalism on almost every issue we look at," said Alexander
W. Astin, a UCLA education professor who started the survey,
the nation's largest, in 1966. The researchers measured
"liberalism" by asking students to describe their political
views and to take positions on certain benchmark issues.
For instance, a record proportion--57.9%--believe that gay
couples should have the legal right to marry. The highest
portion in two decades--32.2%--say the death penalty should be
abolished. And more than a third--the highest rate since
1980--say marijuana should be legalized, although 75% also say
employers should be allowed to require drug testing of workers
Still, about half of the class of 2005, in line with their
recent predecessors, view themselves as "middle of the road"
politically. And 20.7% consider themselves conservative or
"far right," while 29.9%--the highest figure since 1975--say
they are liberal or "far left."
The latter figure has risen steadily since 1996, said Linda
Sax, an education professor and director of the 36th annual
survey. But it pales compared with the peak year in 1971, at
the height of the anti-Vietnam War fervor, when 40.9% of those
polled called themselves liberal.
The American Freshman Survey, based this year on responses
from 281,064 students at 421 four-year colleges and
universities, is the nation's oldest and most comprehensive
assessment of student attitudes. It is a joint project of
UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute and the American
Council on Education, based in Washington.
Freshmen usually fill out questionnaires during orientation or
the first week of classes, so their answers often reflect more
on their high school experiences than on those in college.
Almost all of this year's forms were completed before Sept.
11, so any changes in student attitudes as a result of the
terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon
would be reflected in next year's results, survey directors
Among the more striking findings of this year's poll was a
reversal in a long slide toward political apathy on college
campuses, probably attributable to the dramatic 2000
presidential contest, Sax said.
A growing, though still small, percentage of students now say
they frequently discuss politics and that it is important to
them to keep up to date with political affairs. And a record
47.5%--three times greater than when the question was first
asked in 1966--said they participated in organized
demonstrations in the previous year.
Contrary to common perception, Astin said, there are more
demonstrations now--albeit smaller protests--than during the
era best known for student activism.
"They feel freer [to protest], and there's an environment
that's acceptable," he said.
UCLA freshman Ricardo Gutierrez, who took part in a recent
campus rally to support lower tuition for illegal immigrants,
explained that students "need to be involved if we want laws
passed that we agree with."
"It's important to show people what we think," said Gutierrez,
18, who is from Lamont, near Bakersfield. He said he tries to
keep up with political issues.
Not all agreed. UCLA freshman Nate Skrzypczak said he paid
close attention during the presidential race, then quickly
returned to what he called his "usual disinterested self."
"I don't see that [politics] really directly affects anyone,"
said the 18-year-old from San Diego. "It just doesn't have
that big an impact on my life."
Whether or not they are politically involved, many college
freshmen are anything but disengaged when it comes to
community service. This year's class reported record levels of
volunteerism, with 82.6% saying they had done some volunteer
work in the last year.
Although many high schools require community service for
graduation, and it can boost the prospects for a college
applicant, Astin said the desire to help appears to go well
Despite continuing evidence that today's students are
relatively materialistic--73.6% said they want to be very well
off financially--they also seem to want to find an outlet for
what Astin called their "higher selves."
"They're much more inclined to express their concerns about
other people," he said, in contrast to previous generations of
Volunteering "helps get your mind off yourself," said Christie
Tedmon, a UCLA freshman and a member of its top-ranked
gymnastics team. During high school in Sacramento, Tedmon
joined many of her classmates in helping repair the homes of
elderly people and also volunteered at a local hospital.
"We owe it to the community to help out a little," she said.
Patrick Hamo, 18, spent many hours in high school tutoring
disadvantaged children in a Glendale program started by his
older brother. "It really opens your eyes," the UCLA freshman
said. "It makes you realize how much you can do."
Other trends emerged in this year's survey:
* Of this year's freshmen, 70% said they had socialized with
someone of another racial or ethnic group in the last
year--the highest rate since the survey began.
* Fewer students than before--19.5%--said they believed racial
discrimination was "no longer a major problem" in the United
States, and fewer thought affirmative action in college
admissions should be abolished.
* A record 15.8% of freshmen said they have no religious
preference, up slightly from last year and more than double
the figure in 1966.
* More students than ever appear to be academically
disengaged. A record 41.1% said they were frequently bored in
class, and only 34.9% reported spending at least six hours a
week hitting the books as high school seniors. In 1987, when
the question was first asked, 47% said they studied at least
six hours each week.
* This year's students continue to show signs of stress,
worrying about completing all the tasks confronting them. A
gender gap persists, with more than twice as many young
women--36.6%--as young men--17.4%--reporting feeling
"frequently overwhelmed by all I have to do."
"These students never really get a chance to calm down," Sax
said, especially in the final, frenzied years of high school.
"They're multi-tasking on everything at once, trying to build
these strong resumes before they even get into college."