UCLA survey finds highest percentage
of politically liberal students
"since early '70s."
by Rebecca Trounson
LA Times Education Writer, January 28 2002
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 released
"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 and applicants.
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
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 said.
"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
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 beyond that.
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 students.
"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,"
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
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
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."
& Children watch