Prudent college students toe a middle political line

January 24, 1997

Students are counting the cost of college like never before in the United States.

The University of California at Los Angeles annual survey of college freshmen for 1997 shows a third of students now choose colleges on the basis of tuition rates and available financial help rather than courses offered.

Keeping the lid on college fees, which have seen rises far in excess of inflation in the past two decades, has become a leading issue for college administrators. President Bill Clinton has pledged tax breaks to help parents pay. But the new findings confirm that students are feeling the pressure.

The survey of more than 250,000 students suggests that the failure of state aid programmes to keep up with costs "is changing the way students pick their colleges," said Alexander Astin, director of the survey at UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute.

Over 31 per cent reported choosing a college because it had low tuition fees, while a record 33 per cent cited financial assistance as a "very important" factor.

A growing number (40 per cent) expect to have to work part-time while in college, while two-thirds worry about running out of money. More than 20 per cent said they worked at a job at least 20 hours a week, and typically those going to public universities worked more hours than those in private colleges.

The students' rising financial concerns have not apparently led to their defaulting on college loans. President Clinton announced earlier this month that the default rate actually fell to 11 per cent in 1994, half of the 22 per cent rate in 1990, an improvement that officials claimed had recouped $1.5 billion for the government.

The improvement is credited to tough action against colleges whose students show a poor record on repaying loans. The Department of Education has the power to bar colleges from student aid programmes if more than 40 per cent of students default in a year or 25 per cent default over three years.

The UCLA's annual survey, now in its 31st year, is widely regarded as a national litmus test of student attitudes. In other findings, volunteerism is on the rise, with record numbers reported giving at least an hour of their time each week to community service.

New students reported earning higher grades in school than ever before, with a record 31 per cent arriving at colleges with an A average. Interest in teaching careers rose again from its 20-year high in 1996, to 10.2 per cent, while the number planning business careers (14 per cent) and to become lawyers (3.3 per cent) fell further.

Political interest remains low. The number of freshmen who frequently discussed politics increased only slightly in 1996, to 16 per cent, reflecting perhaps an election year notably lacking in political excitement. That compares to the all-time high of 30 per cent in 1968 and 25 per cent in the election year of 1992. More than half of freshmen declare themselves as politically in the middle, with the rest about equally split between left and right. But the number placing themselves on the far right (1.7 per cent) reached an all-time high.

On the question of sex, however, students showed markedly more conservative attitudes, confirming a drift to conservative social attitudes during the 1990s.

Only 42 per cent agree that "if two people like each other, it's all right for them to have sex even if they've known each other for a very short time", down 10 per cent from ten years ago. Only 56 per cent support keeping abortion legal, from 65 per cent in 1990.

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