Freshmen Survey Documents Growing Focus on Career Readiness

In a trend that began after the start of the recession in 2007, most incoming college freshmen now say their primary reason for going to college is being able to get a better job, according to a survey released Thursday by higher education researchers at UCLA.

The trend represents a radical departure from pre-recession years, when most incoming freshmen indicated that their primary reason for going to college was to learn more about things of interest.

Specifically, in 2006, before the current recession, the report states, 76.8 percent of incoming freshmen indicated that learning about things that interested them was “a very important” reason to go to college, whereas only 70.4 percent indicated the same for getting a better job.

Now, 85.9 percent say getting a job is very important, whereas 82.9 percent said learning more about things of interest was very important.

“I think that’s a big sea change, personally,” said Dr. Linda DeAngelo, a co-author of the report titled “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2011.”

The report was prepared by DeAngelo and fellow staff at the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, or (CIRP), at the Higher Educational Research Institute at UCLA.

“Both of these things may be important,” DeAngelo said of learning more about things of interest and getting a good job. “But the ordering certainly seems attached to the economic situation that we’ve been in for the last few years.”

Dr. Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said the report’s finding that the pursuit of better job prospects trumps learning for learning’s sake among incoming freshmen is consistent with other research as of late.

He also says the situation represents a conundrum for higher education but is, nevertheless, a new reality that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

“It’s something to be concerned about, because a well-educated citizen is important,” Carnevale said. “You can’t really participate in public dialogue without knowing some things and not necessarily things that will get you a job.

“Educators’ concern about this is well-founded,” Carnevale continued. “And the fact that there is less and less money for college education, and prices are going up, is making consumers — the students, the parents, legislators, all of us — our first instinct now is to make sure the priority is employability.”

For those who are interested in drilling down into the data to examine matters of demographics and diversity, “The American Freshman” report represents a mixed bag of interesting possibilities and frustrating limitations.

For instance, responses from students at HBCUs — both public and private — are broken down into a separate category, and show, for example, that the whole jobs-over-general education focus among freshmen is even more pronounced at HBCUs, where 93.6 percent of students indicated that being able to get a better job was very important, versus 81 percent who said gaining a general education and appreciation of ideas was very important.

However, the report does not contain a year-to-year comparison of responses. A few such comparisons were only included in press releases surrounding the report.

Further, a breakdown of responses by racial and ethnic group is also not a part of the formal report, although the data sets for such information are available for those who ask for it.

On a more upbeat note, for those interested in long-term trends, DeAngelo said later this year she and her colleagues at UCLA plan to release a retrospective look at the past 45 years of the annual college freshman survey.

“Then you can compare all you want,” DeAngelo said.

In other significant findings, the 2011 freshman survey found that today’s freshmen are arriving haven taking more college-level courses in high school, having consumed less alcohol but being awarded fewer scholarships.

Specifically,

n The proportion of students who took at least one Advanced Placement course rose from 67.9 percent in 2009 to 71.0 percent in 2011, and those who had taken five or more AP courses rose from 18.7 percent in 2009 to 21.7 percent in 2011.

n The proportion of students who said they drank beer as high school seniors dropped to a record low of 35.4 in 2011, down from 38.4 percent the year before, and those who indicated that they drank wine or liquor dropped from 43.3 percent in 2010 to 41.1 percent in 2011.

n Fewer incoming students stated that they are financing college through grants or scholarships, with percentage dropping from 73.4 in 2010 to 69.5 in 2011. Students also reported receiving less aid, with only 26.8 percent of students receiving $10,000 or more in grants or scholarships in 2011, compared to 29.2 percent in 2010.

“As students search for other ways to pay for college, it comes as no surprise that loan usage continues to surge,” the survey states.

In 2001, 5.6 percent of incoming freshmen said that they expected to use $10,000 or more in loans to cover the costs of their freshman year.

“By 2011,” the report states, “this figure had more than doubled, to 13.3 percent.”