Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Record Update First

Study: Increasing number of freshmen engaged in political activism

The year 2008 brought significant political and economic change, and some of that was reflected in the data collected during the annual nationwide survey of incoming freshmen in four-year colleges.

The annual Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) study provides a snapshot of entering student groups each year and enables trend analyses of experiences and attitudes over decades.

CIRP is conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California at Los Angeles. This year’s data show a number of record highs and lows, but the results of the presidential election will be seen in the survey results next year, says Malinda Matney, the senior research associate in the Division of Student Affairs and administrator of the CIRP survey at U-M.

“Michigan surveys freshmen during their new student orientation in June and July,” Matney says. “This year’s data were collected prior to the collapse of the financial markets and other current issues on the national landscape, before there was a final presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, and prior to both of the major political party conventions.”

Even so, results collected from U-M students show their commitment to social and political activism.

In the 2008 survey, 41.4 percent of U-M students reported they discussed politics frequently in the previous year. This number compares to the national survey results of 35.6 percent, which were at the highest level since 1968. Also, 49.5 percent of U-M students reported that they considered keeping up with politics “essential” or “very important” compared to 39.5 percent nationally.

U-M students actively participated in the democratic process at the same level as students across the nation, with 11.7 percent of U-M freshmen reporting they worked on a local, state or national campaign.

The survey asks freshmen to identify where they stand in the political spectrum. At U-M, the number of liberal students rose to 46.4 percent, but did not break the 1971 record high of 60.8 percent. Of U-M’s incoming freshmen, 35.5 percent identified as middle-of-the-road and 18.2 percent as conservative, which is consistent with data collected in other election years. Nationally, 31 percent of freshmen identified themselves as liberal, the highest level since 1973, while 23 percent considered themselves conservative. Those describing themselves as middle-of-the-road hit an all time low of 43 percent.

Outside the political arena, U-M freshmen also reported on a number of current issues, with 74.1 percent indicating they support marriage rights for same sex couples compared to 66 percent nationally; 50 percent believing that wealthy Americans should pay more taxes, consistent with the national results; and 44.2 percent of U-M students supporting the legalization of marijuana, 2 percent higher than the national results.

Other record highs and lows recorded in the 2008 CIRP include changes indicating that it was one of the most volatile admissions seasons in years. The number of students that applied to four or more colleges hit a record high of 60.1 percent nationally. During the same period, the proportion of freshmen attending their first-choice college dropped to a 34-year low of 60.7 percent nationally. At U-M, 73 percent of first-year students are at their first choice college and 79.1 percent said their first-choice college had accepted them.

U-M incoming freshmen participate in the survey during summer orientation in June and July, which preceded the drastic dips in the economy during the third- and fourth-quarters of 2008. At that time, 23.7 percent of U-M students said that financial aid offers were “very important” in their choice of schools compared to 43 percent nationally, the highest national number recorded in the history of the survey. At U-M 64.1 percent of the students surveyed said they planned to use their own savings to help pay for college and almost 45 percent planned to get a part time job to help cover expenses. Of incoming U-M students, 64 percent reported they received some financial aid they would not need to repay. This is consistent with data from recent years.

Most of the survey’s 240,000 respondents completed the survey in August or September, before the sluggish economy turned terrible, says John Pryor, the survey’s director at HERI. That might explain why the survey did not find that significantly more students were worried about their ability to pay for college.

Data collected by the 2009 Senior Survey, currently underway at U-M, and the upcoming 2009 CIRP survey of freshmen this summer are expected to reveal more about student thought regarding current critical issues, and the impact the economic situation is having on college students.