Record low number of college freshmen said to find politics important

January 09, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

They began their college careers just a few months before the pivotal 1994 election. Their student loan interest subsidies are among several proposed cuts touted by the new leadership of the U.S. Congress.

But don't talk to the nation's college freshmen about politics. They're not interested, according to a survey of freshmen attitudes released today by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"I can't remember many times when I would actually hold conversations with people on politics, on a day-to-day basis or very often," said Sonya Hebert, a freshman from Olney, Md., who attends Emory University in Atlanta.

The survey, now in its 29th year, found that less than a third of freshmen who enrolled last fall said keeping up with political affairs is an important goal in life -- a record low. Fewer students than ever -- just 16 percent -- said they frequently discuss politics. And for the second year in a row, there were substantial declines in the percentages of students who felt it was important to participate in programs to promote racial understanding or clean up the environment.

"This year's college freshmen are more disengaged from politics than any previous entering class," concludes the survey, which is based on the responses of 237,777 students at 461 of the nation's two- and four-year colleges and universities. And that has serious implications, said survey director Alexander W. Astin.

"When people become disengaged, they don't bother to inform themselves and they make them selves more vulnerable to manipulation," said Mr. Astin, who described today's freshmen as "people who don't see themselves as being part of the democratic process, who don't even understand how democracy works."

More than half of freshmen said they considered themselves "middle-of-the-road" politically -- 52.6 percent, up from 49.9 percent a year ago. Just a quarter identified themselves as "liberal" or "far left," down from 27.2 percent in 1993. Those who called themselves "conservative" or "far right" experienced just a slight decline -- from 22.9 percent in fall 1993 to 22.4 percent last year.

When it came to issues, students expressed a mixture of liberal and conservative views. Support for the legalization of marijuana increased for the fifth straight year -- to 32.1 percent -- while support for legislation to outlaw homosexuality fell to a record low: 33.9 percent.

The survey found students to be more stressed than ever. Relying increasingly on student loans to pay for college, a record percentage of students said they were concerned about college finances. Nearly 19 percent of freshmen -- an all-time high -- said they were unsure they would have enough money to complete college.

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