THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 15, Spring 1998

William A. McEachern, Editor

The Max for the Minimum

Last fall 1.6 million students entered college as first-time, full-time freshman. According to survey results of more than 250,000 freshman from 464 institutions, incoming college students are "increasingly disengaged from the academic experience." A record 36.0% say they were frequently "bored in class" during their senior year in high school, up from 29.6% in 1987. A record 34.5% say they missed class or an appointment because they overslept, up from 30.0% in 1987 and nearly double the all-time low of 18.8% in 1968. And only 33.9% in 1997 spent six or more hours a week studying or doing homework during their senior year of high school, down from a record high of 43.7% in 1987 and just above the record low of 33.7% in 1992.

The survey has been conducted each fall since 1966 by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute. Incoming freshman in the fall of 1997 show the lowest interest in politics and the least commitment to social causes in the history of the survey. Only 26.7% believe "keeping up to date with political affairs" is important, down from 29.4% in 1996 and little more than half the record high of 57.8% set back in 1966 (responses averaged 39.4% during the four Bush years, compared to 30.8% so far during the five Clinton years). And only 19.4% believe "becoming involved in programs to clean up the environment" is important, down from 33.9% in 1990, and less than half the peak of 44.6% in 1972 (the Bush years averaged 31.2%; the Clinton years, 23.1%).

Although incoming freshman appear less engaged and less willing to study, half of those surveyed expect to earn a "B" average in college, compared to a low of 32.7% who expected that average in 1972. And 18.5% expect to graduate with honors, up from a low of only 3.7% who expected as much back in 1968. Finally, a record 39.4% plan to pursue a master's degree and a record 15.3% are planning on a Ph.D.According to Linda J. Sax, the survey director, "These trends suggest that while students' level of involvement in their studies is down, they realize they need to be successful in college in order to remain competitive for graduate school admissions." But, she laments, "Academic credentials rather than a love of learning, seem to be their motivation." (The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 1997 by L.J. Sax, et al., is available for $26.79 prepaid from the Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, 3005 Moore Hall, Box 951521, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1521.)

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