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Most Of The Nation's College Freshmen Embrace The Internet As An Educational Tool, UCLA Study Finds

The American Freshman - National Norms for 1998
Use of the Internet as an educational and research tool is widespread among the nation's college freshmen, UCLA's annual survey of first-year students reveals. A whopping 82.9 percent of new freshmen -- more than four out of five students -- are using the Internet for research or homework. Nearly two-thirds (65.9 percent) say they communicate via e-mail.

The fall 1998 survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies also shows that more than half (54.2 percent) of all freshmen say they participate in Internet chat rooms. And nearly three-quarters (72.9) percent engage in "other Internet use." A full 80.4 percent of students say they play computer games at least occasionally.

"Our findings show that the Internet has become a way of life for the majority of students," said survey director Linda J. Sax. "What remains to be seen, however, is whether proficiency on the Internet enhances student learning during college."

When broken down by type of institution, however, the numbers appear to raise technology accessibility issues. A full 80.1 percent of freshmen attending private universities say they communicated via e-mail during their last year in high school. This compares with only 41.4 percent of students at public black colleges. And although the majority of freshmen at all types of institutions have used the Internet for research or homework, this figure ranges from a high of 90.2 percent among students entering private universities to a relative low of 77.6 percent among freshmen attending public black colleges.

"These findings suggest strongly that access to educational technology still is not equal for certain segments of the incoming student population," said UCLA education Professor Alexander W. Astin, founding director of the nationwide freshman survey. "As they incorporate technology into instruction and campus life, colleges and universities should be aware of the differing levels of computing experience among incoming freshmen."

In a related question, 43.2 percent of freshmen agree that "material on the Internet should be regulated by the government." Female students were more likely to endorse this idea, with 52.6 percent supporting government regulation, compared with 32 percent of male students.

The survey included questions about Internet use for the first time in its 33-year history in recognition of the increasing importance of technology in higher education. Conducted in continued association with the American Council on Education, the UCLA survey is the nation's longest-standing and most comprehensive assessment of student attitudes and plans. The fall '98 survey included 383,815 students at 668 of the nation's two- and four-year colleges and universities. Data culled from 275, 811 students at 469 institutions have been adjusted statistically to be representative of the 1.6 million students entering college as first-time, full-time freshmen last fall.

Here's a sampling of other survey results and major trends since the first freshman survey in fall 1966:

Interest in politics continues downward trend
Despite a high-profile scandal in the White House, freshman interest in politics continues to drop. A record low 25.9 percent of freshmen believe that "keeping up to date with political affairs" is a very important or essential life goal. This compares with 26.7 percent just a year ago and a high of 57.8 percent in 1966.

Only 14 percent of freshmen say they frequently discuss politics, compared with the high of 29.9 percent in 1968.

There also is a parallel declining interest in legal careers among this year's freshmen. A record low 3 percent of students aspire to be lawyers, compared with 3.3 percent a year ago and a high of 5.4 percent in 1989.

"Students' disinterest in politics and the law may well have been exacerbated by the current political climate of turmoil, extreme partisanship and gridlock," Professor Astin said.

Volunteerism continues to climb
Even as interest in civic affairs descends, the volunteerism trend continues its rise. A record number of freshmen -- 74.2 percent, compared with 73.1 percent in 1997 and a low of 62 percent in 1989 -- report giving of their time during their last year of high school.

Volunteerism on a regular basis also is up, with 42.1 percent of freshmen donating their time for at least one hour a week, compared with 39.9 percent a year ago and 26.6 percent when this question was asked in 1987. A record high one in five students (20.6 percent) volunteers at least three hours a week.

The survey shows that more and more students are volunteering, even though only 21.3 percent of them attended high schools that require community service for graduation.

"Despite speculation that students' high level of volunteerism may be due to service requirements in the high schools, these findings suggest that the majority of students who engage in volunteer work do so of their own volition," Sax said.

However, the survey also found that while three-quarters of freshmen have experience as volunteers, only 18.9 percent expect to continue their community service work while in college.

"This news is particularly discouraging given the evidence from our research showing that participating in community service benefits students both personally and academically," Astin said.

Academic disengagement continues
A record high 37.7 percent of new freshmen say they frequently felt "bored in class" during their last year in high school, compared with 36 percent a year ago and a low of 26.4 percent in 1985.

Furthermore, an all-time high 60.3 percent of students "came late to class" frequently or occasionally compared with a low of 49.2 percent in 1966. And a record low 32.9 percent say they studied or did homework six or more hours a week during their high-school senior year, compared with 33.9 percent in 1997 and 43.7 percent when this question first was asked in 1987.

This apparent disengagement from academics may help to explain the top reasons freshmen give for attending college. The UCLA survey found that more students are going to college "to be able to get a better job" (76.9 percent) and "to be able to make more money" (74.6 percent) than "to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas" (62 percent).

"These findings suggest that students increasingly view college as a means to an end rather than as an opportunity for intrinsic learning," said Sax.

Beer drinking is at record low
Freshmen starting college this past fall report the lowest levels of beer drinking in the survey's 33-year history. Slightly more than half -- 51.6 percent -- say they drink beer frequently or occasionally, compared with 52.7 percent the previous year and a high of 75.2 percent in 1981. While the degree of decline was similar for men and women, men continue to drink beer at higher rates than women do (57.8 percent compared with 46.3 percent).

Consumption of wine or liquor has remained steady over the past few years, with the current rate, 54.9 percent, far below the 66.7 percent rate reported when this question first was asked in 1987.

"Although it's good news that increasing numbers of students are abstaining from alcohol, there's no question that binge drinking remains a serious problem on some college campuses," Sax acknowledged.

Support for abortion, casual sex at all-time low
Freshman support for keeping abortion legal declined for the sixth straight year to a record low of 50.9 percent. This compares with 53.5 percent in 1997 and a high of 64.9 percent in 1990.

Acceptance of casual sex also is down, with a record low 39.6 percent of freshmen agreeing that "if two people really like each other, it's all right for them to have sex even if they've known each other for a very short time." This compares with 42.2 percent in 1997 and a high of 51.9 percent in 1987.

"The changing attitude toward casual sex quite possibly is a reflection of students' concern about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases," Sax said

UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute has conducted the nationwide freshman survey since 1973. Since the survey's inception in 1966, more than 9 million students at more than 1,500 institutions have participated.

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