Freshmen: Sexes Differ on Career Goals

The 2015 freshmen sample does represent a departure if you compare them to cohorts from 1971 – or even 2006. Until recently, “to learn more about things that interest me” was often the top response, with jobs often sneaking ahead during recessionary times (late 1970s, early 1990s, post-2008). Over the survey’s 50-year history, the biggest climbers have been “make more money” and “preparation for graduate or professional school,” which have risen by nearly 30% and 25% respectively. Ironically, “to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas” fell or languished for much of the 1980s and 1990s, dropping to 60% at one point regarding importance. However, it has nearly  bounced back to its 1970s high in recent years.

Career ambitions and intellectual curiosity often drive students in deciding to attend college. When it comes to actually choosing a college, “good academic reputation” was picked as the most important factor by 65.4% of the sample.


And students are thinking further ahead, too. CIRP reports that 43.6% of students intend to pursue a master’s degree, up from 28.1% in 1974. In addition, 32.9% intend to earn a doctorate or professional degree, an 11.8% increase over the same time period. The numbers were even more pronounced between genders, with 36% of women and 29.4% of men planning to get a doctorate. In 1974, just 15.3% of women expected to do that. The growth is also being driven by first-generation college students, where there has been a 32% uptick in students looking to earn a graduate degree over the past 40 years.



While freshmen are bullish on graduate school, many are resigned to spending extra time as an undergrad. Among respondents at the least selective programs, 42.4% expect to need more time to complete their degree. That number is 35.6% and 29.5% at moderately selective and highly selective schools respectively. Nearly a third of students at the least selective programs believe there is “some” or a “very good chance” that they will transfer. That percentage drops to 17% and 11.8% at moderately and highly selective institutions.


Forget the ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll’ culture of the ’70s and ’80s. Incoming freshmen are returning to America’s puritan roots, it seems. Take 1987, for example, the heyday of heavy hedonism. Then, 34.5% of students spent six or more hours partying. Fast forward 25 years and the number has plummeted to 8.6%. In fact, 41.3% of the sample passed on partying altogether – and 61.4% spent less than an hour at parties. That’s a stunning drop from 1987, where just 24.3% spent less than an hour partying.

Not surprisingly, alcohol and cigarette smoking also fell substantially. In 2014, just 33.5% of incoming freshmen responded that they frequently or occasionally drank beer. In 1981, that number was 74.2% of students, more than double what students report now. And anti-smoking advertising and programs have apparently made a big dent in nicotine use. Just 1.7% of students admitted to smoking cigarettes regularly, compared to 9.2% in 1981 – nearly an 80% drop.

However, there is a dark undertow beneath these numbers. The rate of students who say they frequently felt depressed climbed to 9.5%, up nearly 3.5% over 2009. And incoming freshmen also scored their emotional health at the lowest rate ever. In other words, this survey reflects two or three healthy steps forward – and a dangerous step back.