The UCLA campus is bustling with students. (Mariah Tauger )
Seeing their parents struggle with unemployment and other money worries over the last few years, the nation's current batch of college freshmen increasingly view a bachelor's degree as a necessary ticket to better jobs, according to a UCLA survey being released Thursday.
In responding to the "American Freshman" poll, 85.9% of first-year students across the country said that being able to land a good job is a very important reason for attending college. That is the strongest response to that question in the 40 years it has been asked and is sharply higher than the 70.4% reply in 2006, before the recession began.
The survey asks freshmen to select reasons they are pursuing higher education. For a generation, the most popular one was "to learn more about things that interest me." This year, 82.9% said that was a major motive. But since 2009, the concern about jobs has been on top.
Also setting a record was the response to a query about whether becoming very well off financially is an "essential or very important" objective. The survey showed that 79.6% of the students described such affluence as a compelling goal, up from the pre-recession response of 73.4% in 2006 and double the levels during the more counter-cultural 1970s.
"I think it's understandable. Like everybody in the country, these students are reacting to a time of recession," said John H. Pryor, managing director of UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, which conducts the annual survey.
But he cautioned that it would be wrong to assume that the students want to make money just for luxurious lifestyles. In fact, the report also shows that, compared with students 40 years ago, current freshmen say they are much more interested in having children. So, Pryor said, they may be more aware of what it costs to raise and educate a family.
"They may want to make sure their kids can go to their first-choice colleges without a lot of loans, as opposed to buying the plasma TV and the BMW," he said.
Begun in 1966, the poll is considered the nation's most comprehensive look at college students' attitudes. Nearly 204,000 incoming freshmen at 270 four-year colleges and universities decided to participate at the start of the current school year.
Compared with classes ahead of them, today's recession-era freshmen reported being more studious and sober during high school. These students may fear that bad grades and rejections from good colleges could lead to economic insecurity, analysts said.
Those who reported that they studied or did homework for six or more hours a week as high school seniors rose to 39.5%, up from 34.7% in 2009. In the same period, the share of students who said they drank beer frequently or occasionally in high school dropped from 39.5% to 35.4% and those who said they spent some time "partying" every week during high school declined from 69.7% to 65.3%.
Liberal social causes are becoming more popular on campuses, with supportive responses to many of these questions on the rise.
For example, 71.3% said they supported gay and lesbian couples' right to marry, and 60.7% said abortion should be kept legal. Additionally, 49.1% backed the legalization of marijuana.