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Poll Says College Freshmen Lean Left

Attitudes: UCLA survey finds highest percentage of politically liberal students since early '70s.

January 28, 2002|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

More college freshmen today describe themselves as politically liberal than at any time since the Vietnam War, a nationwide survey by UCLA researchers has found.

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 today.

"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 Washington.

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 year.

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.

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