Researchers at UCLA have been surveying incoming freshman across the United States for the past fifty years to better understand their backgrounds, opinions, and expectations. This month, UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research program, part of the Higher Education Research Institute, just released their latest survey of the nations’ incoming freshman.

Why should higher education institutions pay attention to the results? The survey addresses topics like political views, experience with diversity, academic workload, college being attended, probability of field study, and more. These topics are vital to assessing the changing needs and behaviors of our nations’ young, which is something every higher education institution needs to pay close attention to in order to ensure it is meeting the expectations of its potential “customers”.

Taking a look at the data can not only tell institutions what types of strategies to enforce now, but also what they can plan for in the future based on trends.


5 Key Takeaways


1. There is a growing worry over college costs, especially among non-white and first-generation students.

According to the survey, 22% of black students and 24.7% of Hispanic students said they had “major” concerns about paying for college, versus just 9.2% of white students.

Furthermore, 56.1% of first-generation students said cost was “a very important factor when deciding on college compared to 45.1% of students whose parents attended college.

Many recent studies and reports have shown that college costs are rising in the United States, but this particular data suggests that a particular segment of students are more worried than others. In our previous post about Higher Ed Trends in 2017, we talked about strategies like open textbook initiatives and programs to support underrepresented students in order to tackle student debt. While more programs like these are great steps in address the issue of student debt, the best place to start is ensuring students are properly informed.

A study from the National Center for Educational Statistics reported that 20% of students do not apply for financial aid at all. Some of the reasons include: “I’m not eligible”, “My grades or SAT scores aren’t high enough”, “My parents or I haven’t filed taxes yet”, or “I’m too old”. All of these reasons are common misconceptions, and the majority of the time, that student IS eligible – even if it’s for a federal unsubsidized loan. Because of this, a goal for all colleges should be that 100% of students at least apply for financial aid.


2. This year, there was the highest political gender gap ever.

This year’s survey found the largest gender gap ever since the survey began in 1966. Results showed that 41% of women identified as liberal or far left, compared to 29% of men. The survey also reported that fewer students felt that they were “middle of the road” on politics.

While different analysts speculate as to why there was an increase in the gender gap, most agree that a better understanding of others’ views is crucial to supporting constructive discussions on campus. Kevin Eagan, the lead author on the report, commented, “The gender gap in students’ political beliefs and levels of empathy suggests an opportunity for campuses to facilitate dialogues that bridge differences.” Many colleges and universities across the country already have students political activism clubs, bring speakers to campus, and support students in sharing their beliefs and opinions. The next step to bridging this gap could be more facilitating on the institution’s end – like interactive workshops or even courses where students from opposing sides can be heard and understood.


3. More freshman are attending college closer to home.

This year, more freshmen reported that they attend college within 10 miles from home — 13% compared to 11% last year. There was also a 3% decrease in students that attended college more than 500 miles from home.

While this is good news for colleges and universities that are focusing their enrollment efforts in the local area, it can be something to look out for if you’re institution is looking to increase out-of-state or international applicants.

Over recent years, funding for state colleges across the country has decreased rapidly, making out-of-state applicants a larger priority for colleges since they bring in more tuition compared to in-state students. This trend, however, suggests that out-of-state recruiting will become more difficult.

One significant cause of this trend is most likely the rising cost of college. Students are settling for colleges that are not necessarily their first or second choice, but they are closer to home and less expensive.

Tuition expense isn’t the only factor at play here — living expenses are a concern as well. More freshmen are planning to live with their parents this year (19% compared to 15% last year). While this decision may be right for some students, it can be damaging to many, as studies show that students who live off campus have a harder time finding study buddies, they lose out on campus culture, and they tend to graduate later.

While institutions don’t have too much flexibility in the cost of housing, they can work to offer more flexible options for student. For example, many on-campus housing plans require students to purchase meal plans that can be excessive and extremely costly compared to groceries in off-campus stores. In fact, excessive meal plans even sparked one student to start Share Meals, a cause that lets students donate their “extra swipes” to those in need. While this program is an amazing way to prevent leftover food — students are still paying for excess food that they don’t need. By offering plans where students only use what they need, living costs can be more manageable.


4. Regular social media use has nearly doubled since 2014.

The survey found that 41% percent of freshmen reported they were on social media for at least six hours per week, compared to only 27% in 2014. This is a huge increase, and one that probably isn’t too surprising to most higher education professionals.

What does this mean for higher education institutions? That social media may just be the future of communication. There is no better way to reach students then meeting them where they already are. While social media may be too “casual” for important information like confidential admissions and financial information, it can be a great resource to reach students with other important information like housing, support services, ways to get involved on campus and more.

When you think “social media”, you may think posting a picture to Instagram or watching students communicate through images through Snapchat. However, many schools are starting to utilize social media as a way of not only communicating with students, but also as a way to receive important feedback. Developing support groups on Facebook for things like financial aid help, mental health resources, and tutoring options for specific topics, students may be more inclined to participate since they are already on the platforms.


5. Mental and emotional health are important issues (that should be addressed).

According to the survey, less than half of the freshmen, 47%, consider their mental health to be above average in relation to their peers — a first in the survey’s history (and a 3% decrease from last year). 35% said they felt anxious “frequently” and 14% said there was a “very good chance” they would seek counseling.

How can colleges and universities help? Many institutions have counseling and support programs available, but greater awareness should be a priority. Offering workshops on prevention mechanisms like developing coping skills, promoting resilience, and teaching students how to manage a school/work/life balance can provide the support that students need for their emotional well-being.

Schools are also looking to the Silicon Valley “start-up office culture” for inspiration, like meditation rooms, nap pods, and on-campus wellness centers offering massages and acupuncture.

Focusing on mental health and counseling options in new student orientations can give students the full picture of what resources are available to them (and that they can remain anonymous!) at the start, helping prevent mental breakdowns in the future. In orientations, institutions should also highlight that many students experience these feelings – no one is alone. Sonia Doshi, a student at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, struggled her first year, but felt it was difficult to accept this struggle. She commented, “Struggle is normal and needs to be discussed.”


For the full report, visit the Higher Education Research Institute & Cooperative Institution Research Program at UCLA.