US keeps eye on the race

January 19, 1996

Taking race into account in college admissions - in the name of helping disadvantaged minorities - was turned into one of 1995's biggest political issues in higher education by conservatives who sought to end it.

But while Republicans calculated that stirring public anger over so-called quotas at colleges and universities would bring in the votes, a new survey suggests that it largely failed to wash with students themselves.

About 70 per cent of first-year students broadly support the use of race as a criterion in college admissions, according to the 1995 National Freshman Survey conducted by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute.

Other findings are that while men play more video games, women do more homework, and are twice as likely as men to feel "overwhelmed" by all they have to do.

Interest in politics fell yet again in what is a 30-year trend: but schooling may be partly to blame, the survey suggests, as 33 per cent, a record total, report being frequently bored in class during their last year of high school.

The survey added to the impression that affirmative action, the US term for positive discrimination, is running out of steam as a mainstream political and potential campaign issue, though Republicans apparently hoped to make it a "wedge issue" for white voters.

Special consideration for African-Americans by college admissions officers, for example, won the support of 65 per cent of those at universities, and even stronger backing at further education institutions and the historically black colleges and universities.

California governor Pete Wilson, who used attacks on affirmative action as a staple of his abortive run for the presidency and pressured the University of California into dropping its programmes, declined to mention the subject in his annual "state of the state" speech laying down legislative priorities this month.

However, the publicity has had some effect. When questioners actually used the phrase "affirmative action", students backing slumped to only 50 per cent.

"If it says anything about affirmative action as a politicial issue, it says a lot of people don't understand what it means," said Linda Sax, associate director of the survey.

Large majorities also believe admissions should take into account economic background plus athletic ability, and 58 per cent agreed that children of alumni should get special consideration - possibly reflecting a growing insecurity among families over the higher standards required at top state colleges. That students did not vent strong feelings on these issues may underline what researchers regard as a depressing and continuing trend: the disengagement of American students from politics of any kind.

The 240,000 students at 473 institutions, whose questionnaires were used to compute national norms for the 1.5 million American first-year college students, were polled in September with Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution supposedly in full flow after an historic election the previous winter.

But student commitment to "keeping up to date with political affairs" as an important life goal had dropped for the third straight year to an all-time low of 28.5 per cent - compared to 57.8 per cent in 1986. Typically interest will rise temporarily in this election year before falling back again.

"These are future voters, people making decisions about political and social issues, they do not seem to be informed and do not particularly want to be informed," said Ms Sax, who blamed the "simplified and negative" version of politics sold on the students' main source of information, television.

Students are increasingly labelling their views "middle of the road" and interest in old-style political activism - cleaning up the environment, promoting racial understanding - has markedly fallen.

The political views they volunteered did not fall naturally into right or left-wing patterns. Support for legal abortions has dropped to 58 per cent, and for sex between two people "who've known each other a very short time" to 43 per cent from a slim majority in 1987.

Ms Sax singled out one finding. The number of students planning to become elementary or secondary teachers has reached its highest level in two decades since the early 1970s, when interest in a career in education plummeted.

The survey shows 9.7 per cent of freshmen - 13 per cent of women and 5.8 per cent of men - want to be teachers. Women, who until about 1969 dominated the ranks of would-be teachers, are showing renewed enthusiasm, but the numbers of men are also increasing, Ms Sax said.

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