Jeff Chiu / AP

Study finds incoming college freshmen drink and socialize less, worry more

UCLA survey shows today's students more interested in school, less so in partying, than previous generations

Today’s incoming college freshman don’t drink or smoke nearly as much as their parents did, and they spend far more time studying than socializing, probably because they’re focused on the extremely competitive college admissions process, according to an annual report (PDF) published Thursday by University of California, Los Angeles’ Higher Education Research Institute.

UCLA, which has conducted its American Freshman Survey for nearly 50 years, polled more than 150,000 incoming freshman at 227 four-year colleges and universities nationwide about their habits and beliefs over the past year — meaning, during their senior year of high school.

In 2014, the percentage of college freshmen that said they regularly drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes was drastically lower than it was in earlier decades. For example, while 74.2 percent of incoming freshman in 1981 said they “frequently” or “occasionally” drank beer, just 33.5 percent in 2014 said the same. The students who said they often drank wine or hard liquor decreased from 67.8 percent in 1987 to 38.7 percent in 2014, and those who said they smoked tobacco decreased from 9.2 percent in 1981 to 1.7 percent in 2014.

Today’s college freshmen also reported spending far less time socializing with friends than previous generations. In 1987, 37.9 percent of incoming freshmen said they spent at least 16 hours a week hanging out with their friends, while 18.1 percent said they spent five hours or less. But in 2014, only 18 percent of freshmen said they spent at least 16 hours a week socializing, while 38.8 percent said they spent five hours or less.

Students also reported less time partying than previous generations. In 2014, 61.4 percent said they partied less than an hour a week — a drastic increase from the 24.3 percent who said the same in 1987. In fact, 41.3 percent of those surveyed in 2014 said they didn’t spend any time partying at all. And those hard partiers who spent more than six hours a week cutting loose fell to just 8.6 percent in 2014 from 34.5 percent in 1987.

The institute, which began tracking students’ social media use in 2007, found that usage has since skyrocketed among incoming college and university freshmen. For example, freshmen that spent more than six hours a week on social networking sites increased in the seven years since students were first surveyed on the matter from 8.6 percent to 34.5 percent.

Kevin Eagan, interim managing director of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, said the decreased time spent socializing, paired with reduced drinking and smoking, indicates students are spending more time studying and preparing for school.

“Students on the whole have gotten the message that they need to take college seriously,” he said. With increasingly competitive admissions requirements and students applying to numerous schools, “there’s this competitive academic factor that students have internalized,” he added.

Citing findings by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the institute noted that while incoming freshmen were far less experienced with drinking than students from previous generations, they’re still likely to experiment with alcohol when they start college.

“Such changes may have important consequences for alcohol education and other prevention programs,” the authors wrote.

In regards to continuing their education beyond college, incoming freshmen indicated that they were more interested in attending graduate school than their parents were. In 1974, just 28.1 percent of students said they planned to earn a master’s degree, which increased to 43.6 percent in 2014.

“Many students, particularly those entering college, view a college degree as just a next step, and that they’re no longer viewing it as the end of their educational journey,” Eagan said. “In large part they may have a perception that in order to advance their careers that they need a graduate degree.”

The report said that increased interest in graduate school could be attributed to the rising ambitions of women. The study found that 36 percent of women wanted to earn a doctoral degree in 2014, versus just 29.4 percent of men, somewhat of a flip-flop from the 15.3 percent of women and 26.3 percent of men who wanted to obtain doctoral degrees in 1974.

When it came to personal beliefs, a record 27.5 percent of incoming freshman reported that they didn’t adhere to any religion, up from 15.4 percent in 1971. The authors wrote that the results correspond with a recent Pew Research Center finding that Millennials are more likely than Gen X-ers or Baby Boomers to lack affiliation with any religion.

“Students just may not be identifying with the messaging they’re hearing coming out of the church in general,” Eagan said, pointing out that 80 percent of incoming college freshmen said they supported same-sex marriage rights. “That’s one example of a conflict in students’ personal values with the values held by many religions,” he said.

Finally, incoming freshmen reported feeling more depressed and anxious than students have in previous years. The number of students who said they “frequently” felt depressed rose to 9.5 percent in 2014, up from 6.1 percent in 2009, when it reached its lowest point.

That emotional stress, when paired with less experience drinking and more time spent worrying about getting into college, poses a unique challenge for academic institutions, Eagan said, because students with lower levels of emotional health are less likely to graduate.

“As we look at this cohort going through college, I think that following the emotional health issues and how these students are able to be successful in college will be important,” he said. 

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