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Study Finds Students Conservative, Materialistic

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The latest findings of a nationwide survey of college freshmen that has been conducted annually for the last 16 years lend strong support to the perception that today's youth are substantially more materialistic and politically conservative than their counterparts of a decade ago.

In the new survey, The American Freshman: National Norms For Fall 1981, 65.2 percent--nearly two-thirds--of this year's first-term college students said that "being well-off financially" was one of their most important goals in life.

The proportion of students responding positively to that question has risen by almost 20 percent since 1971, according to Alexander W. Astin, professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles (ucla) and the director of the survey.

At the same time, Mr. Astin said in releasing the survey results this week, 67 percent of the students said that the ability "to make more money" was a very important reason for deciding to get a college education. Last year 63.4 percent gave that response; 43.5 percent did so in 1971.

The apparent increase in materialism has been accompanied by a general trend toward political conservatism, Mr. Astin noted. The number of students labeling themselves as conservative grew from 17.1 percent in 1980 to 19.6 percent this year, while the number labeling themselves as liberal dropped from 19.6 percent to 18.1 percent during the same period.

Political Orientation

At the same time, however, the study revealed a decrease in the number of students saying that their political orientation was either "far left" (from 2.1 percent in 1980 to 1.6 percent last fall) or "far right" (from 1.2 percent to 1.1 percent).

"Whereas 10 years ago students on the left of the political spectrum outnumbered those on the right by better than two-to-one (38.1 percent versus 15.2 percent), those on the right now slightly outnumber those on the left (20.7 percent versus 19.7 percent)," Mr. Astin said. "The majority (59.6 percent), however, still label themselves 'middle-of-the-road."'

Mr. Astin also said that the survey revealed a continuing decline in student altruism and social concern. When asked what life goals they considered to be very important, fewer students endorsed "helping others in difficulty" (62.9 percent, down from 64.7 percent last year and 66 percent in 1975), "participating in programs to clean up the environment" (24.8 percent, down from 26.7 percent last year and 44.6 percent in 1973), and "helping to promote racial understanding" (31 percent, down from 33.1 percent last year and 35.8 percent in 1977).

"This pattern of declining altruism and idealism, together with increasing conservatism and materialism, may mean that selfish and materialistic interests are difficult to reconcile with concerns about the quality of life and the welfare of others," Mr. Astin said. "In recent years, the latter seem to be losing ground to the former."

The findings of the ucla study closely parallel those of a survey of 1980 high-school graduates drawn from data collected by the Department of Education during its massive High School and Beyond study. The report, A Capsule Description of High School Students, found that more than 30 percent of the seniors queried said that "having lots of money'' was very important to them, compared to only 19 percent of their counterparts in 1972.

Likewise, the report found that the number of seniors who believed that correction of social and economic inequalities was an important goal plummeted from 27 percent in 1972 to 13 percent in 1980.

Mr. Astin said that this year's study of college freshmen also noted conservative trends in decreased student support for the abolition of capital punishment (from 34.5 percent in 1980 to 30.1 percent in 1981), legalization of marijuana (39.3 percent to 34 percent), school busing (45.8 percent to 43.8 percent), and substantial investments of money to solve urban problems (49.2 to 46.2 percent).

The findings of the ucla survey, which is co-sponsored by the American Council on Education, are based on questionnaires completed by more than 280,000 new freshmen entering a national sample of 537 two- and four-year colleges. Copies of the findings are available for $7.50 from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, Graduate School of Education, ucla, Los Angeles, Calif., 90024.

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