5 fast facts about your new freshmen

Recent protests, contentious debates, and overwhelmed campus counseling centers have already suggested it, but now there's proof: this year's college freshmen are more politically divided and overwhelmed than any other class in the last five decades. 

The proof comes by way of this year's annual Freshman Survey, conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)'s Higher Education Research Institute.

The survey's respondents consisted of over 137,400 full-time freshman students enrolled in 184 colleges and universities. UCLA researchers gathered and analyzed responses on a number of topics, and were able to identify five trends influencing today's first-year student:

Trend 1: The political divide is the largest it's been in the past half century.

  • Slightly more than 42% identify as "middle-of-the-road" on political issues;
  • About 35.5% identify as far left or liberal; and
  • Just 22% identify as far right or conservative.

According to the researchers, these results are the most divided they've been since they launched the survey 50 years ago. Kevin Eagan, the survey's lead author, argues that the findings suggest colleges should better encourage dialogues among students with different political views so as to bridge the tolerance gap.

According to Liz Rothenberg, a managing director at EAB, student activism on these divided college campuses is expected to continue—and even intensify.

Trend 2: Political choices differ between gender lines. 

  • About 41% of female respondents identify as liberal, compared with 29% of males;
  • About 82% of women say the government should prioritize combating climate change, compared with about 77% of men; and
  • A little over three quarters of female respondents favor stricter gun control laws, compared with 58.8% of males.

Trend 3: Empathy for others differ according to political beliefs.

  • About 86.6% of liberal students say they "strongly" or "somewhat strongly" tolerate others with different beliefs;
  • About 82.2% of students identifying as "middle-of-the-road" say the same; and
  • Only 68.1% of conservative students say the same.

Is empathy a virtue? One psychologist says no

Trend 4: Mental health concerns are on the rise.

  • Less than half of respondents rate their mental health as better than average;
  • About 41% of students report feeling overwhelmed; and
  • About 13.9% of respondents say there is a "very good chance" they will seek counseling on campus.

In recent years, the demand for student counseling services on American campuses has skyrocketed, and colleges have struggled to keep up. The survey's findings suggest that the incoming crop of students will only continue the trend. In fact, the percent of students who report feelings of depression is the highest in the survey's history, according to researchers.

How to tackle the student stress dilemma

Trend 5: Fewer students end up at their first choice.

  • A little more than half of respondents report that they are attending their first-choice college, versus 77% of respondents four decades ago; and
  • The majority of students (21%) applied to between seven and 10 schools, whereas only 11% applied to one school.

Why do students decline their dream schools?

(New York Times, 8/30; UCLA release, 8/30). 

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