Freshman Group With Pell Grants At Record Low

By Robert Rothman — January 11, 1989 5 min read

The proportion of college freshmen receiving federal student-aid grants has declined by more than half since 1980, an annual survey has found, and in 1988 reached its lowest level since the survey began 23 years ago.

In 1988, 15.6 percent of all freshmen received Pell Grants, which are available to students from lower-income families, compared with the peak level of 31.5 percent in 1980, it found.

The decline in participation in Pell Grants and other federal student-aid programs has been accompanied by an increasing reliance on family contributions and institutional scholarships, according to Alexander W. Astin, the survey’s director. That change, he said, reflects the Reagan Administration’s efforts to shift the burden of financing college away from taxpayers.

“The federal government has, in effect, cut back on most of the financial-aid programs intended to help college students from low- and middle-income families,” said Mr. Astin, professor of higher education at the University of California at Los Angeles. “The burden of paying for college has shifted increasingly to students, their families, and the nation’s colleges and universities.”

The survey, conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, a joint project of ucla and the American Council on Education, is based on responses from 222,296 students at 402 two- and four-year colleges and universities. The results have been statistically weighted to reflect the responses of the 1.6 million students entering college as freshmen in the fall of 1988.

The survey also suggested that the rise in students’ interest in teaching careers that has been evident since the school-reform movement began in 1983 has continued.

In 1988, it found, 8.8 percent of college freshmen expressed an interest in teaching in elementary or secondary schools, compared with 8.1 percent in 1987.

“The salaries are higher, the jobs are there, the prospects are good, and teaching is back in public esteem,” said Kenneth C. Green, the survey’s associate director.

Still, the level of interest in teaching expressed in the survey is far short of the projected need for new teachers, and well below the all-time high of 23.5 percent registered in 1968.

Moreover, the survey indicated that proposals to reform teacher education by requiring prospective teachers to earn liberal-arts degrees so far have had little impact on students’ plans. Virtually all the freshmen who intend to become teachers said they expected to major in education.

The researchers reported that student reliance on federal aid other than Pell Grants also has declined sharply in the 1980’s. Participation in the college work-study and Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant programs reached all-time lows in 1988, they said.

At the same time, an all-time high of 78.2 percent of freshmen reported a reliance on family contributions, and a record 20 percent said they received institutional grants and scholarships in 1988.

These shifts have forced parents to “buy down” their children’s choice of college, Mr. Green argued.

“Families who might have sent their children to private colleges or away to college, made a lower-cost decision about college,” he said.

As a result, he noted, enrollments at state-supported institutions and part-time enrollments have risen sharply in this decade, even as the number of college-age youths has declined.

Despite concerns that the decline in grants might lead to an overreliance on loans, participation in the federal Guaranteed Student Loan program fell for the second straight year, the study indicated. Some 20.9 percent of freshmen reported receiving the loans--a rate that was down from the 1986 high of 25.4 percent and about the same as the 1980 level.

Use of National Direct Student Loans, now called Perkins loans, also shrank. Only 2.4 percent of freshmen, an all-time low, said they received the loans, compared with 4.5 percent in 1987 and 9.1 percent in 1980.

These findings suggest that parents “may be reluctant to take out loans,” according to Mr. Green.

Loans are “not necessarily a beneficial intervention,” he said. “They may be a negative incentive.”

Shifts in the career preferences of freshmen also were reflected in the survey.

Along with the growing interest in teaching careers, the number of students who said they planned to become nurses rose this year, after years of steep decline.

Mr. Green pointed out, however, that this finding may reflect the higher salaries and job opportunities resulting from the nationwide nursing shortage, rather than a long-term trend.

On the other hand, the 18-year rise in interest in business careers may have peaked, according to survey data. Many students who may have considered business careers before the 1987 crash in the stock market, Mr. Green suggested, shifted their in4tentions to careers in law or medicine.

New students’ plans to attain advanced degrees reached an all-time high, the survey found.

Some 11.7 percent of freshmen said they intended to earn a doctor8ate, and 36.3 percent said they hoped to earn a master’s degree--compared with 10.4 percent for a doctorate and 34.3 percent for a master’s degree in 1987.

In part, Mr. Green said, these increases reflect the “dramatic” rise in women’s aspirations over the past two decades. The proportion of first-year women who said they wanted to earn a doctorate rose by two-thirds between the 1970 and 1988 surveys.

The increases also are a product of growth in the “portfolio-building mentality” among all students, he observed.

“The bachelor’s degree is not seen as a sufficient credential for the job market of the 1990’s and the next century,” he said.

Such “strategic planning” also helps explain the increased competition for college admission, Mr. Green said. The proportion of students who said they had applied to three or more colleges reached a record high of 37.1 percent in 1988; the proportion who applied to five or more--12.7 percent--has risen by more than four-fifths since 1980.

“Getting into the right college is seen as a stepping stone to a good job,” Mr. Green said.

The survey also revealed that:

Cigarette smoking appears to be on the rise, after years of steady decline. However, only two-thirds of freshmen--down from three-fourths in 1981--said they frequently or occasionally drink beer.

In response to two new questions, freshmen expressed strong support for testing for drug use and aids. More than two-thirds agreed that “the best way to control aids is through widespread, mandatory testing.” And 71 percent said they agreed that “employers should be allowed to require drug testing of employees or job applicants.”

Copies of the survey, “The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 1988,” are available for $17 each, postpaid, from the Higher Education Research Institute, ucla Graduate School of Education, 405 Hilgard Avenue, Los Angeles, Calif. 90024-1521.

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1989 edition of Education Week as Freshman Group With Pell Grants At Record Low


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