USC freshman Jarod Wunneburger views 2006 as a breakthrough year for the gay community, with the popularity of Oscar-nominated films such as "Brokeback Mountain" and "Transamerica" and the public debate over states banning same-sex marriage.
So to Wunneburger, a UCLA report released today about the attitudes of college freshmen nationwide came as no surprise. Acceptance of same-sex marriage grew from 2005 to 2006.
The study found that 61% of incoming freshmen last year agreed that same-sex couples should have the right to marriage, up 3.3 percentage points from 2005.
Based on a paper questionnaire given to 271,441 first-time, full-time college students at 393 schools nationwide in 2006, the annual survey was conducted as part of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program under UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute. The researchers statistically adjusted the data to reflect the demographics of the 1.3 million incoming freshmen entering four-year schools throughout the U.S. in 2006.
The findings on gay issues reflected the experiences of Wunneburger, 18, a sociology major who works at USC's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center.
"Most students here don't have a problem with people being open about their sexuality," said Wunneburger, who recalled the acceptance he felt after coming out to a Christian campus group he recently joined. "I think most people my age know being gay is something out there and are more open to accepting it."
The UCLA study surveyed opinions on a variety of social and political issues.
Researchers say today's freshmen are more vocal about their political ideologies than in previous years, with 33.8% saying they've recently discussed politics, up from 25.5% in 2004, when the question was last asked.
"Freshmen also appear to be moving away from a moderate position in their political views," said John H. Pryor, director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program.
The percentage of students identifying themselves as "liberal," 28.4%, is at its highest level since 1975, and those identifying as "conservative," 23.9%, at its highest level in the survey's 40-year history.
However, the majority of 2006's freshman students, 43.3%, consider themselves "middle-of-the-road," the lowest percentage since first measured by the research program in 1970.
Hot-button issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, sharply divide liberals and conservatives, the survey found.
While the majority of freshmen overall support same-sex marriage, the issue divides students along ideological lines. Four out of 5 liberals support same-sex marriage, compared with 1 out of every 3 conservatives.
Regarding abortion, 78.4% of liberal freshmen agree that the procedure should be legal, compared with 31.8% of conservative students.
The common ground between liberals and conservatives can be found on affirmative action in college admissions, where 53% of conservatives and 45% of liberals agree that the practice should be abolished.
The two groups strongly agree in similar proportions that "dissent is a critical component of the political process," supported by 63.2% of conservatives and 66.1% of liberals surveyed.
Researchers also noted that fewer freshmen were attending their dream colleges. In 2006, 67.3% attended their first-choice institutions. Only 1988 had a lower figure, when 66.7% attended their top choices.
The freshmen said they picked their first-choice institutions based on, in order of importance: academic reputation, potential job after graduation, a campus visit, school size and social environment.
When it came to the second choice or lower, students instead focused primarily on tuition costs and financial aid offered, the survey reported.
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UCLA's survey of freshmen at U.S. colleges and universities finds liberals and conservatives deeply split on political issues involving homosexuality.
Percent who agree that...
Same-sex couples should have the right to legal marital status.
It is important to have laws prohibiting homosexual relationships.
Note: UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute surveyed 271,441 full-time students entering 393 4-year colleges and universities nationwide as freshmen in 2006.