Survey studies 40 years of trends in first-years

Carnegie Mellon students are richer and more qualified than ever before, according to a new survey. They are also more ambitious, applying to more schools, and are less likely to have applied to Carnegie Mellon as their first choice.

These are only some of the conclusions about higher education gleaned from “American Freshmen: Forty-Year Trends 1966–2006,” the results of a survey administered to each entering class for the past 40 years at hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide.

The study, released April 9, was part of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), run by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. It aimed to document the characteristics and values of college first-years on both national and local levels by asking students about family finances; study habits; social and academic performance in high school; life goals; political, religious, and racial ideologies; and reasons for attending college.

“We’ve been participating since the 1960s,” said Stacey Lopez, the director of Carnegie Mellon’s Institutional Research and Analysis, of the survey. Each year, 80 to 90 percent of Carnegie Mellon first-year students complete the survey during Orientation, she said.

Now, officials can see the results of 40 years’ worth of labor — and finally receive some answers to some of higher education’s touchiest questions.

In 2006, nearly 70 percent of Carnegie Mellon students estimated their parents’ total annual income at $75,000 or more, according to the CIRP report. This is well above the national median of $46,326. In 1971, college families made only 46 percent more than the national median average.

“Education is a really strange business. Why do we do all this studying? Because we think it is good for society. What are we doing if only the richest kids can pay to come, though?” said Indira Nair, the vice provost for education.

“I don’t think we have truly poor kids anymore,” Nair said.

These figures matched those of colleges nationwide. Overall, the median parental income for entering first-years in 2005 was $74,000, 60 percent higher than the national average, according to a press release from the Higher Education Research Institute.

“My concern is that we’re going back to a time when education was more for the elite,” said Susan Ambrose, the associate provost for education and a teaching professor in the history department.

In its gradual transition away from being a regional working-class institution since the turn of the century, Carnegie Mellon has attracted a more geographically diverse student body. In 1975, Carnegie Mellon was within 500 miles of homes for approximately 80 percent of its students; now, 80 percent hail from 100 miles away or more, including 40 percent who reside over 500 miles away.

“It’s been a mixed blessing for Carnegie’s dream for a true working-class institution,” Nair said.

Fifty-four percent of Carnegie Mellon students reported that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was a very important aspect of their education, more than 15 percent fewer than in 1975. The survey put the national average for this figure at 44 percent.

“When you’re technological and product-oriented, philosophical discussions probably do not seem as necessary,” Nair said.

To promote this kind of discusion, the university is considering an initiative to implement periodic faculty-led philosophical discussions in first-year residence halls, she said. Fifty-eight faculty members showed up for a meeting regarding the discussions, which would be moderated on a volunteer basis.

The study showed that while students are more qualified and higher-performing than ever before, more want academic help and support. In 2006, 75 percent of Carnegie Mellon students reported that they typically received As in high school, a 35 percent increase since 1975.

Nevertheless, Academic Development’s tutoring programs are overwhelmed with requests, according to Ambrose.

“More people are reporting learning disabilities. The provost has increased the resources for [tutoring] programs, [but] still not enough to meet demand. The hard question is, what skills are students without when they come into college?” Ambrose said.

“A lot of people say it’s the high-stakes testing becoming more important,” she continued, referring to the battery of tests mandated by the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act. The need to “teach to the test,” she said, has forced teachers to de-emphasize skills that are crucial for college work.

These new teaching methods cause students to come to college with a different set of expectations than in the past, Nair said.

“Students seem less inclined to try before giving up,” she said. “Willingness to fail is gone. You give a kid a C and it is seen as an unacceptable grade.”

Statistics show that these students’ attitudes may be due to a perceived increase in academic competition. From the inception of the study, four-year institutions have been experiencing unprecedented increases in applications and enrollment, many receiving almost double the number they received in 1967.

“This could have to do with the Common Application,” Lopez said. The Common Application gives students the ability to apply to many institutions with just one application.

Carnegie Mellon applicants reflect this trend. In 2003, 53 percent of Carnegie Mellon applicants applied to six or more schools, compared to only 8 percent in 1975.

In addition, students are getting choosier — in 1975, 77 percent of enrolled first-years cited Carnegie Mellon as their first choice versus less than 50 percent today.

Accordingly, Carnegie Mellon has received record numbers of applications for the past several years. As of last February, the university had received a record 22,052 applications, a 19.2 percent increase over last year alone, according to a university press release.

The study predicted that the volume of applications will continue to grow until at least 2015.