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More college freshmen view diploma as gateway to better job

Nearly 75% of first-year students in the U.S. say making more money was a key reason for pursuing a bachelor's degree, a UCLA survey finds.

January 24, 2013|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times
  • A survey of college freshmen found current U.S. economic conditions significantly affected the choices of colleges for 67% of them, up from 62% two years ago. Above, the scene at Cal State Long Beach during the first week of the spring semester.
A survey of college freshmen found current U.S. economic conditions significantly… (Christina House, For The…)

College freshmen increasingly see higher education as a path to financial security during uncertain economic times, according to a UCLA-sponsored survey of first-year students across the nation.

A record high level of current freshmen cited getting a better job as a very important reason to pursue a college diploma: 87.9% of them, up about 17 percentage points from 2006, before the recession began. Making more money as a result of earning a bachelor's degree was key to 74.6% of them, rising from 69% six years ago, said The American Freshman survey released Thursday by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute.

"With the recession going on, they have seen so many people losing jobs and hopefully have seen statistics that those with college degrees are much more likely to have jobs than people who don't have college degrees," said John H. Pryor, the study's main author and the institute's managing director.

The report also found increasing money pressures on college enrollment: 66.6% of freshmen said current U.S. economic conditions significantly affected their choices of colleges, compared with just over 62% two years ago when the question was first posed. Tuition and other expenses strongly influenced where they enrolled for 43.3%, up from 31% when first asked in 2004.

More students are living at home or with relatives: 17.2%, about 2 percentage points more than last year. And those who do so are less likely to borrow money or tap family resources to pay college bills, Pryor said.

The survey, now in its 47th year, is considered the nation's most comprehensive assessment of college students' attitudes. For Thursday's results, it polled 192,912 first-time full-time freshmen as they started the 2012 fall semester at 283 four-year colleges and universities around the country.

Students' personal life goals also seem partly shaped by money worries, with 81% saying that being "very well off financially" was essential or very important, a new record and double what it was 40 years ago during the hippie era. Yet, they also showed a philanthropic side: 72% said they wanted to help others in difficulty, 6 percentage points higher than both before the recent recession and in the mid-1970s.

Politically, 47.5% of freshmen identified themselves as middle-of-the-road, compared with 43.3% in 2008. That comes mainly from a decline in those who said they were liberal or far left, now 29.6%, while conservatives or far right students stayed about the same, 22.9%. However, support for liberal causes has risen, with 75% supporting gay marriage, 61.1% backing abortion rights and 64.6% thinking the wealthy should pay more taxes.

Freshmen reflect a wider trend away from ideological labels despite specific issues. "It's a general moving away from seeing yourself labeled as a liberal or conservative, a Democrat or Republican, and more likely to consider yourself as an independent who might vote Democratic or Republican," Pryor said.

larry.gordon@latimes.com

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