Politics proves a fresher turn-off

January 20, 1995

Students entering colleges and universities in the United States this year are more turned off by politics than any group of freshers polled for their views since 1966 when the surveys started.

The finding in the annual survey of the University of California at Los Angeles may reflect the disenchantment with politicians in US society at large.

But it surprised Alexander Astin, professor of higher education at UCLA's graduate school of education. Only 31.9 per cent of first-year students in autumn 1994 believed that "keeping up with political affairs" was an important goal in life. In 1990, the figure was 42.4 per cent and in 1966, it was 57.8 per cent.

"Considering that the figure from last year -- a non-election year -- was 37.6 per cent, the sharp drop observed during this recent election year is all the more remarkable," Professor Astin said.

Even more political apathy was uncovered when the students were asked whether they frequently discussed politics. An all-time low of 16 per cent said yes.

In a nation where news comes in the form of soundbites on television and political mudslinging plumbed new depths last year, it is perhaps not unexpected.

The UCLA survey of 333,703 freshmen across America is considered to be the most comprehensive of its kind.

But it is only a snapshot of young people's views. Three years ago the survey was reporting a growing number of students who identified themselves by the "l" word "liberal".

These figures have declined. Today's freshmen are a mixture of liberal and conservative. They increasingly support the legalisation of marijuana as well as gun control and gay rights. But they have strong conservative attitudes on law and order.

Support for abolishing capital punishment reached its lowest point in the history of the survey: 20.1 per cent, compared with 22.1 per cent in 1993 and a high of 57.6 per cent in 1971.

The survey also showed the increasing financial debt burden shouldered by students.

Reliance on loans reached all-time highs, and students expressed record levels of doubt about their ability to pay for college.

In view of this it was perhaps not surprising to find students feeling increasingly stressed. A record number said they "felt overwhelmed by all I have to do".

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