Meet the First Years!

Steve Volk, September 4, 2017

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

One thing we learn as educators is that all students are different and need to be taught in ways that can best promote their learning and growth. I’m not talking about the “learning styles” literature, which needs to be approached with a good degree of caution and should not be confused with Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” research. (Indeed, a veritable “learning-styles-industrial complex” has developed around the approach, giving rise to dozens of companies all trying to sell their particular “learning-styles” product, even though, as many researchers have discovered, there is no evidence to support the idea that matching activities to one’s learning style improves learning.) Rather, I mean that one of the great joys of teaching is getting to know students on an individual level so that we can provide the most appropriate help when needed. And, the other side of the coin, one of our great frustrations is lacking the time to do this to the extent that we would desire.

Nonetheless, there is something to be gained by examining an incoming class as a whole, not just at our own college, but across the country. At Oberlin, for example, we have just welcomed 765 new students (College and Conservatory combined). 58% of the class are women, 42% men, which puts us just slightly above the national figure of 55% women). We have learned that approximately 26% of the class are students of color, and that 88 foreign students from 40 different countries now call Oberlin home.

What about the national picture, where some 20.4 million students are expected to attend American colleges and universities in 2017 (an increase of about 5.1 million since fall 2000)? For many years, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has published The American Freshman: National Norms, an annual survey of full-time first-year students (FTFT). I always find the survey a useful means to follow trends that are developing in higher education, some of which are mirrored on our own campus.

This “Article of the Week” will present some of HERI’s data for students entering in 2016 which were published a few months ago, as well as figures from a few other sources. The HERI data were compiled from a survey of 137,456 students including 80,000 students at baccalaureate institutions, of whom about 49,000 were from private 4-year colleges. While HERI and other sources I’ve examined report on a multitude of topics, here I just including a few snapshots that I found most informative.

Political Orientation

It will come as no surprise to learn that the entering cohort of full-time, first-time college students in the fall 2016 semester was the most polarized in the 51-year history of the Freshman Survey, in general and by gender. (Any guesses as to what the results will show for the 2017 entering class? I shudder in anticipation.) Fewer students than ever before (42.3%) categorize their political views as “middle of the road,” while an all-time high of 41.1% of women self-identify as “liberal” or “far left” with respect to their political views. This compares with 28.9% of men who consider themselves in the same categories, yielding the largest gender gap in self-reported political orientation to date.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 4.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 4.

More broadly, here is how incoming first-years thought of themselves politically:

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac, 2017-18, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac, 2017-18, p. 34.

Openness to other viewpoints:

The fact that more students nationally are moving away from a “middle-of-the-road” self-definition is not, it itself, either surprising or necessarily troubling. It could suggest that entering students are more aware of political issues and more willing to define themselves in relation to on-going debates. What IS troubling – you thought I’d skate away from this one, didn’t you? – are the findings regarding the degree to which politically defined students profess that they will “tolerate” others with different beliefs. (What “tolerating” other beliefs means isn’t fully defined.) Somewhat less than one-third of self-identified right-of-center students indicated a low tolerance of others with different beliefs. This compared to 82.0% of “middle of the road” students and 86.6% of left-of-center students who said that they “strongly” or “somewhat strongly” would “tolerate others with different beliefs.” The complexities of teaching in an environment where those who hold different political beliefs aren’t “tolerated” are enormous.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 6.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 6.

Why are students going to college?

For many years after the financial crash of 2008, students focused on economic criteria as the primary reasons for going on to post-secondary education. As the unemployment rate began to decline from 2012 to 2016, the trend was paralleled by a decline in more purely job-related or financial reasons expressing why a high school student wanted to continue on to  college – although such reasons are still very important. The percentage of students concerned about going to college to get a better job has modestly declined from an all-time high of 87.9% in 2012 to 84.8% in 2016, hardly a dramatic decline. First-time, full-time college students in 2016 were ever-so-slightly less likely to consider “making more money” as a very important reason to attend college (72.6%) compared to their peers who started college in 2012 (74.6%). It’s heartening (at least from my perspective, others might disagree) to see a rise in the desire to gain “a general education and appreciation of ideas” and learning “more about things that interest me,” as reasons for going on to college. But we be foolish to neglect the underlying economic considerations when thinking about our students.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 8.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 8.

Here’s a chart listing the “top objectives” that in-coming students named as  essential or very important goals they wanted to achieve by going on to college or university.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p 35.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p 35.

First-Generation Students:

Of course, there are significant variations among student cohorts. First-generation students, for example, are more likely to consider the cost of their selected institution and being offered financial assistance as very important factors in selecting their college (56.1% and 58.2%, respectively) compared to continuing-generation students (45.1% and 43.9%).

Over the past 10 years, the proportion of first-generation college students enrolling full-time in four-year institutions has hovered around 20%. In 2015, approximately 17.2% of incoming first-year students self-reported as first-generation, the lowest proportion of first-generation students in the history of the survey. In 2016, roughly 18.8% of the cohort of incoming students identify as first-generation college students.

If it’s hard to understand exactly what these numbers suggest, the demographic composition of first generation students is striking and suggests the changing racial and ethic composition of higher education which is already strongly underway. Only 10% of first generation students were white, whereas 27% were Black and 57% Latino.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 11.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 11.

Mental Health Concerns:

Rates of anxiety and depression among American college students have soared in the last decade, and many more students than in the past come to campus already on medication for such conditions. Distressingly, the number of students with suicidal thoughts has risen as well. According to studies published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 33% of students in the past 12 months felt so depressed that it “was difficult to function.”

The trends are likely to continue based on data on incoming students. More than one-third (34.5%) of incoming first-time, full-time college students reported frequently feeling anxious. Students identifying with any of the disabilities, psychological disorders, or chronic illnesses listed on the instrument have a greater likelihood than other freshmen to have frequently felt anxious in the past year.

Disabilities

Last year Oberlin graduated 178 students who had been registered with the Disabilities Services office. This number included students with regular accommodations (i.e., those whose documentation was in order), students considered as “provisional” (those whose documentation was not up to date or incomplete); and temporaries (about 3-5% of students with broken arms, concussions, etc.). By the end of the spring 2017 semester, the office had seen about 700 students, or approximately 23% of the student body. Think about it, people. That’s a very significant number.

The Oberlin figures are generally in line with national trends. Overall, nearly 22% of incoming first-year students identified as having at least one disability/disorder. All reports indicate that the figure is increasing. A decade ago (2007-08), 11% of undergraduates reported a disability.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

For those interested in reading more about students on the autism spectrum, I can recommend two recent articles: Jan Hoffman, “Along the Autism Spectrum, A Path Through Campus Life,” New York Times (Nov. 19, 2016), and Paul Basken, “Colleges Are Trying a Broad Approach to Autistic Students. What Will That Cost?Chronicle of Higher Education (August 28, 2017). [Note: “premium” content available via the library.]

Gender Identity and Sexuality:

The HERI survey for the first time in its history asked students to identify themselves by gender identity, and then used this data to ask about levels of confidence in specific skills or attributes. Compared to the nationally normed sample, students identifying as transgender have far greater confidence in their artistic ability (52.0% vs. 30.7% rating “highest 10%” or “above average”) and creativity (64.0% vs. 52.6% rating “highest 10%” or “above average”). By contrast, transgender students rate themselves lower than first-time, full-time students in the areas of social self-confidence, leadership ability, and physical health.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

The Chronicle of Higher Education offered an overview of the sexual orientation or identity as self-reported by in-coming first year students.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Social Media Use:

I found it both interesting and somewhat counter-intuitive that increased social media use on the part of in-coming students didn’t reveal any decline in the amount of time they spent with face-to-face contacts. Full time, first-year students entering college this fall do not seem to substitute more frequent use of online social networks for in-person interactions with friends. Three-quarters (75.2%) of students who spent at least six hours per week using social media during the past year also spent at least six hours per week socializing with friends in person. By contrast, roughly half (48.2%) of students who averaged less than six hours each week connecting in online social networks also spent six or more hours socializing with their friends in person. More time online = a greater likelihood of more face-to-face interactions? I need to think about that one more.

If you, like me, wondered where all this time was being spent, here’s some indication.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Wait — one might say at this point — students are spending more (or the same amount) of time on average socializing, exercising, and hanging out online as studying? Obviously, the data need unpacking, and will vary widely by the type of institution. But when we think despairingly of “today’s students” (as in “what’s the matter with students today”), I’d strongly recommend reading Gail O. Mellow’s recent op-ed in the New York Times. Mellow, the president of La Guardia Community College, observed in “The Biggest Misconception About Today’s College Students” (August 28, 2017), that “Of the country’s nearly 18 million undergraduates, more than 40 percent go to community college, and of those, only 62 percent can afford to go to college full-time. By contrast, a mere 0.4 percent of students in the United States attend one of the Ivies.” Four in ten students work at least 30 hours per week; 25% work full time and go to school full time. My guess is that they aren’t the ones exercising or socializing with friends during their “free” hours.

Whatever the numbers and the trends suggest, we all know that all students bring their own stories, strengths, and concerns to college and that, if the statistics can help us better comprehend the state of higher education, only by getting to know our own students can we provide them with the support and guidance they deserve.

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