Some social commentators talk about the end of the materialistic Yuppie Generation, but such speculation is contradicted by a newly released survey of college freshmen showing that more students than ever want to become wealthy in business careers.
The national survey by the American Council on Education and UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute was compiled mainly before the stock market crash in October. However, Alexander W. Astin, the UCLA professor who directed the study, said he did not think that the uncertain economic climate would slow the desire of young people "to make a fast buck."
"The trend is a profound shift not only in students' values but also in the values of the larger society," Astin said. "The trend has lasted through good times and bad times."
Careers in Business
According to the survey of nearly 290,000 students, the popularity of future careers in business reached an all-time high in 1987, being the choice of 24.6% of freshman, up from 24.1% the previous year and more than double what it was 20 years ago.
At the same time, the desire to get rich is at a high point, according to the annual survey now in its 22nd year. A record 75.6% of freshman said that "being very well off financially" was one of their top goals, compared to 73.2% in 1986 and dramatically higher than the 39.1% in 1970 during the countercultural movement on campuses.
Commitments to the less materialistic goal of "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" dropped slightly to 39.4%, continuing the plummet from a peak of 82.9% of freshmen in 1967. Helping less fortunate people was important to 58.7% of the current students, slightly higher than the previous year but well below the 68.5% recorded in 1966.
Astin said that the drive to become rich in business has contributed to the continuing decline in interest in careers in engineering and computer sciences. Students want to avoid the more rigorous engineering and computer studies in favor of business curricula they perceive as easier and leading to jobs that pay as much, if not more, than those technical fields, Astin said.
In 1987, only 8.5% of freshmen expressed interest in engineering, compared to 9.7% the year before and the survey's peak of 12% in 1982. The desire for careers as computer programmers or systems analysts also dropped, to 2.7%, from 3.5% in 1986 and the peak of 8.8% in 1982. Increasing familiarity with computers may contribute to that trend as "more students see computers as a tool for their studies and careers, rather than as a career itself," Astin added.
Interest in Teaching
Those drops should cause alarm about the future of the nation to compete in technology worldwide, Astin said. And even more troubling for the economy, he said, is that many young people may enter the work force without the education and discipline really needed. "What worries me is that they want to make a fast buck," he said.
One counter-trend is a small increase in the number of freshman interested in becoming teachers in elementary or secondary schools. That rose to 8.1% in 1987, up from 7.3% the year before and the low point of 4.7% in 1982. However, Astin cautioned that such a boost does not necessarily indicate more altruism; rather, he said, it may reflect the recent emphasis on educational reforms in political debates and the media as well as some increases in teachers' salaries.
Yet the general trend toward business careers and materialism is not accompanied by any big rush toward political conservatism on campuses, the study showed. In 1987, only 18.3% of freshman described themselves as conservative, down slightly from the year before and from the peak of 19.6% in 1981. The proportion describing themselves as liberals increased slightly to 22.2%, a substantial gain from the low of 18.1% recorded in 1981 but dramatically lower than 35.3% in 1971. The most popular political label is now middle-of-the road, espoused by 56% of freshman.
Support Liberal Issues
Hefty majorities of freshman supported such traditionally liberal issues as allowing legal abortion and holding back spending on defense. However, Astin noted that the fear of AIDS may be cutting into support for homosexual rights. Freshman support for laws prohibiting homosexual relations rose to 53.1% in 1987, up from 52.2% in 1986 and 47.9% the year before.
Yet at the same time, the survey indicates that young people also have a "can't happen to me" attitude about AIDS being sexually transmitted. In a new high, 51.9% of the students agreed that "if two people really like each other it's all right for them to have sex even if they have known each other for only a short time"; that was a significant jump from the 46.8% recorded in 1984, the last time the question was asked.
The 1987 survey was based on questionnaires answered at 562 two- and four-year colleges and universities.