College freshmen today are less interested in learning, report says Some area educators confirm national survey, tell of student apathy

January 09, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

This year's college freshmen are less interested in learning or politics than their counterparts at any point in the past three decades, according to a national survey released yesterday.

That may surprise parents who are told during annual admissions pitches by college officials that each successive batch of new students is better than the last.

But the survey of more than 240,000 students by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles mirrors the experiences of some area educators.

"This really confirms something I've observed," said Eric Belgrad, chairman of Towson State University's political science department. "They're either highly motivated and extremely interested and dependable, and as good as any group of students I've found, or they're utterly passive, literally uninterested in anything that might have happened in the world five years ago.

"It's almost split 50-50," said Dr. Belgrad, who taught an introductory course to Towson State freshmen last fall. "I can't find any C students. I couldn't find them. They're either A or B students -- really marvelous students -- or they have no idea why they are at school or what they're doing there."

Less than 15 percent of the first-year students surveyed said they discuss politics frequently, down from 25 percent of freshmen in 1992 and 30 percent in 1968. And more than a third of this year's freshmen -- 34 percent -- report being frequently bored in class.

Survey conducted last fall

The survey was conducted in the fall of 1995 by UCLA researchers Linda J. Sax, Alexander W. Astin, William S. Korn and Kathryn M. Mahoney of the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute. It was sponsored by the American Council on Education, a coalition of education organizations based in Washington.

The trend at the University of Maryland Baltimore County has been toward admitting students who are more highly motivated in academics than those who came before them. Even so, many students have not been challenged enough in high school to prepare them for college life, said Susan T. Kitchen, UMBC's vice president for student affairs.

"Sometimes a university experience then can be a rude awakening, because they can't simply get along," Dr. Kitchen said.

The time students spend studying, on homework, talking with teachers or involved in extra-curricular activities has also dropped, according to the report. Instead, students are spending more time working, smoking cigarettes, exercising, playing sports, or using personal computers. Those characteristics, consistent with a seven-year trend, are particularly pronounced among men.

Men are much more likely than women to spend at least six hours a week watching television and at least six hours a week partying -- that group was about 36 percent of men and 26 percent of women in both cases, according to the survey. And more than 9 percent of male college freshmen said they spend at least six hours a week playing video games, compared with 1 percent of women.

Many unprepared for college

Those habits, many professors say, lead to a student body that contains too many freshmen unprepared for college. In a Maryland study released last year, more than a third of first-year students entering college in 1993 had to take remedial courses -- high school-level classes required to proceed to basic college classes in writing, reading and math.

"The things that men tended to do -- partying and video games -- these activities tend to have a negative impact on their grades and on some levels of actual intellectual achievement in college," said Dr. Sax, a lecturer at the University of California Los Angeles. She attributed the lack of interest in schoolwork and politics in part to the influence of television.

"It's the television issue," she said. "The source of the information they get about politics is television. It may be they're not as interested in politics as they used to be, and that they don't feel that they can change anything."

Electronic technology in general, not just television, tends to separate students from the learning experience, UMBC's Dr. Kitchen suggested. "As students do spend more time interacting on the computers, social skills have declined, [such as] how to get along with other people, how to have a good conversation," she said.

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