Each year about late January the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) releases its findings from the
latest annual CIRP (Freshman) Survey with much fanfare, and its discoveries about the "Nation's Freshmen"
are reported by newspapers across the country. In its
official press release
on the survey of Fall 2003
Freshmen , HERI highlights findings on interest in politics, volunteerism, high school grades, religious
involvement, and drinking, smoking and partying. How do first-year Swarthmore students compare with their
peers across the country, and with their predecessors here, on these issues? Swarthmore has been
administering the CIRP survey for over thirty years, and can address that question.
HERI reports that an interest in politics is on the rise among the nation's freshmen. There had been
declining interest for thirty years, but that trend reversed in 2001. Now, a third of new students
feel that "keeping up to date with political affairs" is a "very important" life goal. There has
also been an increase over the previous year's respondents in the percentage who discussed politics
"frequently" while in high school, from 19% in 2002 to 22% in 2003.
"Keeping up with" politics has been a much higher priority among incoming Swarthmore students as
far back as we have measured. In the early 70's about 60% responded that keeping up with politics
was "very important" or "essential." That percentage increased in the 80's, but then began to
decline in the mid-90's. Its lowest point was 48% with the class entering in 1999, after which
it began to increase again. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of this year's new students felt that keeping
up with politics was important, an increase of 8 percentage points over the previous class, and
the highest point since 1996.
The frequency with which Swarthmore students discussed politics was likewise well above the
national norm, and has followed a track parallel to the "importance" rating. This past fall,
half of incoming Swarthmore students reported discussing politics "frequently" in high school,
a difference of 28 percentage points compared with the national average, and an increase of 8
percentage points over the previous Swarthmore class. (There is not a clear relationship
between these ratings and the proximity to a presidential election on either the national
or Swarthmore level.)
HERI reports that 83% of students across the nation participated in volunteer work as high
school seniors, a record number reflecting an upward trend that began from a low of 66% in
1989. Given Swarthmore's mission and character, one might expect a greater level of
volunteerism among its students. In fact, 87% of Swarthmore students had volunteered while
in high school. This is actually a slight decline since a high of 91% in 2000 and in 2001.
But the level of volunteerism has remained very high since the mid-80's when this question
was first included, and so it seems that Swatties have really not changed very much on this
A quarter (25%) of the nation's first year students expect to participate in volunteer
or community work while in college, compared with almost half (49%) of Swarthmore students.
In the national data, this measure has trended upward along with the high school volunteerism.
At Swarthmore, this measure has seen some increases and decreases over the years, and has
been flat for the last few. The percentage of new Swarthmore students who attended high
schools where community service was a requirement is 42%, higher than the national figure,
reported by HERI as 31%.
Grades are always an interesting issue at Swarthmore. HERI reports that "as the 'A' average
becomes the norm, the 'C' grade is becoming a thing of the past.
*" Nearly half (47%) of the
nation's freshmen reported earning an "A" average in high school. However, only a third (34%)
report that they spent six or more hours a week studying in high school. Furthermore this
figure has been declining, and was lower only once, in 1987.
Given Swarthmore's selectivity, it is not surprising that a higher percentage reported an
"A" average in high school. Over two-thirds (69%) achieved this GPA. But this compares
to only 34% of new Swarthmore students in 1971. It was in the late '80's that over half of
incoming Swarthmore students began achieving that level of high school grades, and the
percentage has been mostly increasing ever since. In contrast with the national findings,
Swarthmore students achieved those good grades with a lot of work - over three quarters (76%)
studied for six or more hours a week in high school, and this percentage has not changed very
much over the decade and a half for which we have data.
Though HERI did not highlight this measure in their press releases, they found that 59%
of the nation's freshmen estimated that chances were "very good" that they would make at
least a "B" average in college. The percentage with this expectation is highest (66%)
among students at the most selective non-sectarian colleges, the sector in which Swarthmore
falls. But only 56% of new Swarthmore students expect to achieve at least a "B" average.
There are no national comparative data for actual GPA achievement to see how realistic the
expectations of students in the various sectors are. But at Swarthmore, since the great
majority of Swarthmore students do graduate with averages of at least a "B," many of the
44% of incoming students who do not expect to achieve this GPA are either very unrealistic,
or have been unnecessarily frightened.
HERI has found that the rate of drinking and smoking among the nation's freshmen continues
to decline. Fewer than half (45%) report drinking beer "frequently" or "occasionally,"
and about half (51%) report drinking wine or other liquor "frequently" or "occasionally."
The rate of smoking has gone up and down. A record high of 13% in 1998 reported smoking,
but this rate has declined recently, to 6% with students entering college in Fall 2003.
Beer drinking among Swarthmore students has lagged that of their national peers, with
37% of new Fall 2003 students reporting drinking "frequently" or "occasionally" while in
high school. Swarthmore has outpaced its national peers in drinking wine or other liquor,
however, with 53% of our newest students reporting this behavior. Smoking has never been
very popular among Swarthmore students, at least for as long as we've been routinely
measuring it, with the highest rate of 8% occurring in 1995. Only 1% of this year's
incoming Swarthmore students were smokers.
Finally, though HERI does not report on this, Swarthmore readers might be interested
in the way political ideology has (or has not) changed over time. The following chart
shows the political views of first-year students over the last thirty years. Swarthmore
students have been predominantly liberal over the years, with some shifting. In the most
recent incoming class, over two-thirds (68%) identify themselves as either liberal or far
left. This compares to 27% nationally.
*Alexander W. Astin, quoted in HERI press release. Astin was the founding director of the CIRP survey and is an education professor at UCLA, where HERI is located.(Back)
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