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Money worries squeeze freshmen

Record numbers say they need financial aid and part-time jobs, a

January 22, 2009|Larry Gordon

The economic crisis is pushing growing numbers of college freshmen to look for part-time jobs, scrounge for financial aid and turn down admission offers from schools that were their dream campuses, according to a national survey by UCLA researchers.

Even in the early days of the current recession, money worries were evident among the students polled for UCLA's 43rd annual "American Freshman" survey, which is being released today. The study found that 43% of students viewed financial aid as very important or essential to their choice of a college. That figure was up from 39.7% last year and was the highest in the 36 years the question has been asked.

A record proportion, more than 49%, reported that they will need a job this year to help pay expenses, up from 47% the previous year. And 8.5% of students said their ultimate choice of college was strongly affected by not being offered financial aid by their first-choice campus, the highest such response since the question was first asked 24 years ago.

"When you've got these economically tough times, students are forced to see the impact of that," said John H. Pryor, managing director of UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, which conducts the survey, the nation's oldest and most comprehensive assessment of student attitudes. This year's report was based on responses from 240,580 freshmen at 340 four-year colleges and universities.

In other trends, the survey also found the class of 2013 to be increasingly liberal and politically engaged compared with students in recent years. This year's freshmen voiced more support than did previous classes for legalizing gay marriage and marijuana, but less interest in boosting defense spending. They also reported drinking beer and liquor somewhat less in high school than their predecessors did.

Most students answered the questions during freshman orientation, as the national financial crisis was beginning this past summer and fall but was not at its worst, Pryor said. He said he expected the next survey to show students' financial concerns growing "drastically higher unless there is some miraculous turnaround."

The economic findings resonated with Stephanie Tardif, a junior at Occidental College. Tardif has worked various jobs during college, including as a server at Starbucks and an usher at Dodger Stadium, but said she was feeling the recession's effect in Los Angeles. "It's pretty difficult finding a part-time job now," she said.

She said she and other students also worry that the economy may not improve by the time they graduate. "In a year and a half, I have to be working and supporting myself," said Tardif, who is from Ventura. "I'm not expecting to land an amazing job right away. I'm just fearful I won't be able to land any job at all."

At UC Santa Barbara, freshman Azucena Gutierrez said she works eight hours a week as a teacher's assistant at a campus child-care center but has been unable to get the extra hours or second job she needs to cover her expenses.

Though grants and substantial loans help pay her main fees and dorm costs, "there are all these other expenses you don't consider at first," said Gutierrez, whose family lives in Farmersville in the Central Valley. "There are books I have to buy and supplies and everyday things."

The survey also contains questions about students' personal goals, often depicted in the report as a struggle between "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" and "being well off financially." During the counterculture years of the '60s and '70s, students often emphasized the importance of having a meaningful life philosophy, an interest that receded over the next two decades as financial concerns surged. In the last three years, students increasingly have said that both areas are important, a change that analysts attributed mainly to women's rising interest in financial success.

Slightly more than half (51.4%) of current freshmen said it was important to develop a life philosophy and more than three-fourths (76.8%) said it was very important or essential to do well financially.

Pryor said those surveyed may have been reacting emotionally to the financial downturn by simultaneously showing distaste for Wall Street careers, while still hoping for personal financial security. In the past, students' financial goals often seemed based on acquiring fancy cars and other luxuries, while this year's appeared focused on holding a steady job "to be comfortable and provide for your family," he said.

The share of students who described themselves as liberal, 31%, was the highest since 1973 when campuses were gripped by concerns over the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. In addition, 3.2% said they were far left, slightly more than last year.

Fewer than a quarter of students, 22.5%, described themselves as conservative or far right, down from 24.6% the year before, and 43.3% said they were middle of the road, down slightly from the previous year.

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