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Alexander Astin Looks Back at 50 Years of “The American Freshman”

Since its inception in 1966 by UCLA Professor Alexander “Sandy” Astin, “The American Freshman” has chronicled the lives of incoming college freshmen at campuses across the nation. When the survey was first administered in 1966, some of the questions asked whether students had driven a car, were part of a set of twins, acted in plays, or had listened to New Orleans jazz. Over the last 50 years, “The American Freshman” has evolved to tackle issues such as students’ readiness for college, career goals, and how they will pay for a higher education. The survey also asks about their attitudes toward such personal beliefs as religion, politics, sexual orientation, and mental health.

Professor Astin created the Freshman Survey while serving as director of research at the American Council on Education (ACE), and continued it at UCLA when he joined the UCLA Education faculty in 1973 with his late wife, Helen “Lena” Astin, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Education. The Astins collaborated on many research projects, including a recent study on spirituality in higher education, which became the book, “Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives ” (With J.A. Lindholm, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2010.)

Helen "Lena" Astin and Alexander "Sandy" Astin in 2015. Courtesy of Sandy Astin

At UCLA, Alexander Astin founded the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), which is home to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), an ongoing national longitudinal study that administers the Freshman Survey and periodic follow up surveys. To date, the CIRP has surveyed approximately 15 million students, 400,000 faculty and staff, and 1,800 higher education institutions across the nation, providing data that is widely used by researchers, policymakers, and the media. The fall of 2015 marked the 50 administration of “The American Freshman” survey.

Astin is the Allan M. Cartter Distinguished Professor of Higher Education Emeritus at UCLA, and has served as an active full-time faculty member in the division of Higher Education & Organizational Change for 29 years. He has authored 23 books and more than 300 other publications in the field of higher education, including his research on the role of values and spirituality in higher education, outcomes of higher education, institutional quality, leadership, equality of opportunity and access, and the interface between research and policy. Professor Astin is a member of the National Academy of Education, has been a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and is the recipient of 11 honorary degrees.

Astin’s new book, “Are You Smart Enough? How Colleges’ Obsession with Smartness Shortchanges Students” (Stylus Publishing, 2016), focuses on how academia’s obsession with “being smart” distorts the life of a typical college or university, and how it leads to a higher education system that shortchanges the majority of students, and by extension, society’s need for an educated population. In the book, he calls for a return to the true mission of developing the potential of each student and the potential of colleges to fulfill their stated mission by valuing student qualities such as leadership, social responsibility, honesty, empathy, and citizenship.

Former California Senator Tom Hayden will host a book launch for Professor Astin at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 20 at Barnes & Noble, 1201 3 Street Promenade, Santa Monica, 90401. For more information, click here.

Ampersand had the opportunity to speak with Professor Astin on his latest book, the profound changes to American society through the lens of higher education, and the value of spirituality in a traditionally secular academic environment.

Ampersand: How did you come to create the Freshman Survey?

Alexander Astin: I was directing the research program at the National Merit Scholarship Corporation when ACE invited me to become their research director. I had been at the National Merit for four years, doing large-scale studies of the Merit finalists and Merit Scholars. We were looking at the country’s brightest kids and studying their development through college. In the process of doing this, I got interested in more general questions about higher education and its students.

Even though I was very young at the time, the president of the ACE and its vice president wanted me to set up an office of research, and asked me to head it. I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity, since being at ACE provided the college presidents as a kind of captive audience, so maybe but carrying out my research there I could interest them more in what’s happening with their students.

I thought that only way to do this right was to study all the different kinds of colleges we have in the country because they are all so interesting and to study the students and track them from the time they start to the time they finish and beyond college, to see how they change and develop. I hoped we could learn something about how students are affected by different kinds of experiences in college.

&: How did “The American Freshman” become the valued resource that it is now?

Astin: The purpose of the Freshman Survey from the beginning was to track a group of students through college. Sampling more than 300 colleges, we planned to follow the 1966 entering freshmen through college and possibly beyond. In this way the freshman results provided a baseline for seeing how students change during and after college.

But a lot of people thought [the Freshman Survey] was more like the Gallup Poll, where you merely survey the same entering population year after year. Thus, after the 1966 survey, we were asked, ‘Are you going to do a 1967 survey? We’d like to be able to track how our entering classes change from one freshman class to the next. Even though our main interest was in following up the 1966 freshmen, we said we would do another freshman survey in 1967, and so the annual Freshman Survey just took on a life of its own.

As we added a new freshman survey each fall, we developed an audience. Media liked it, so we began writing press releases each year, showing how the new students were changing from one year to the next. It became obvious that we had something really significant that [enabled us] to put our finger on the pulse of society. I think the consecutive surveys are really what we call social indicators – in them, we see how the society is changing.

Helen and Alexander Astin in the early 1970s. Courtesy of Albert Aubin

&: What are some of the greatest changes that you saw through the Freshman Survey?

Astin: I believe that the most significant change that the survey reflects has been the effects of the womens’ movement. It’s hard to realize that when we started the survey in the late 1960s, almost no women opted to go into engineering, law, or pre-med. The number of women [studying] business was also quite small, and very few aspired to doctorate degrees. Nursing and education were the ‘female’ fields, as well as home economics. And there were all these sexist jokes about women going to college to find a husband. All of this, of course, has changed.

Most of the big effects of the women’s movement took place between 1970 and the mid-1980s, about a 15-year period. We were able to track profound changes, considering how short a time that was. So many people who were born after that time take these changes for granted. [Women] are going to be the majority in medicine before too long. When we open up the last remaining fields and get more women in politics and in policymaking positions, we’re going to see even more profound societal change… that we have not begun to appreciate yet in terms of its impact.

&: What is the importance of the study of students’ values and morals?

Astin: The education community has always been skeptical – ‘Why are you studying values and attitudes? What does that have to do with higher education?’ My view about this is that whether or not you think that higher education ought to be dealing with kids’ values, the fact of the matter is that their values are a very important part of their lives.

If you read descriptions of what people think a liberal education is all about, they talk mainly about values. Values are going to determine what kind of choices students make, what kind of careers they pursue, what kind of work they do, and whether they stay in or leave college. [Students are] also going to have an impact on society: who they vote for, whether they get involved in politics, whether they even vote. Their values are going to have a lot to do with that. So whether or not we believe that values are relevant to higher education, the fact is that they are clearly relevant.

Astin: Around the same time that the women’s movement was happening, the materialistic values of freshmen became stronger from year to year. In fact, we saw the whole society become more materialistic. There’s some evidence suggesting that this greater materialism was caused, at least in part, by the advent of television. As more and more homes became equipped with TVs, when those kids entered college 15 years later as freshmen they began to express stronger materialistic values than did their predecessors who didn’t have TVs in the home.

As materialism got stronger, students showed a sharp decline of interest in [forming] a philosophy of life. This was very troubling to us, because in the 1960s, it was the top value. It has continued to decline – fewer than half today think it’s an important value. That decline was in part what motivated us to do the study on spirituality. We were wondering, ‘What’s going on here? Can college help to reverse some of these trends?’

But our follow-up studies of each entering class show that [materialism] tends to get weaker during college. Making money becomes less important. Students’ interest in the environment gets stronger; their interest in having some kind of positive impact on race relations gets stronger. Their interest in the arts gets stronger. So, higher education has that kind of shaping effect on values.

&: How have you seen students’ spirituality – or lack thereof – evolve?

Astin: Another trend in the last 15 or 20 years shows that students are becoming more polarized in their religious choices. Today you have a record high number of kids who say, ‘I have no religion,’ and a record high number who say that they are affiliated with some kind of a fundamentalist or evangelical group. The kind of in-between folks – mainstream Protestant groups and Catholics, – have been showing a decline since they’re losing members to these two extremes.

I recently published research in a student affairs journal that focused on students who say they’re not religious but who say they are spiritual. I felt that this was a group that people didn’t know much about, because they are not officially connected with a particular faith. They are unlikely to become involved in “interfaith” efforts on campus, because this is a group for whom organized religion has little appeal. The growth in this group reflects a more general societal trend toward what you might call “secular spirituality.”

&: Do you think this shift is a result of organized religion’s attitude toward issues of gender identity and homosexuality?

Astin: Absolutely. I don’t think that in the history of humankind that there has been a faster and more profound change in people’s attitudes about some important social issue like there has been with homosexuality. The changes brought about by the women’s and civil rights movements were more gradual. Even our president shifted his attitude on gay rights in a short five-year period. I think the issue of sexual orientation has really splintered the various religious groups, [although] there are significant numbers of young people even in evangelical groups who are supportive of full rights for homosexuals.

&: How have race relations been impacted according to the Freshman Survey?

Astin: We have a question about whether racism is still a problem in our society. As you might guess, racial differences in attitudes on this issue are quite different when students start college, but instead of converging these racial differences become even greater during college. I think that racial differences may widen because young people frequently hang out with others of their own race during college, so the particular attitudes of each race are reinforced. Kids hanging out with kids of their own race tend to perpetuate whatever each group believes.

&: How has the extreme focus on test scores, higher grades, and getting into the best schools changed intellectual opportunities for students?

Astin: It started in the 1970s. Parents and students put tremendous pressure on high school teachers to give good grades. As a result, fewer and fewer kids are reporting that they got Cs in high school or even Bs. I spend a whole chapter in the new book explaining why grading is not a good way to evaluate students’ learning and development. Today students are less engaged in the academic process; they study less, but they get higher grades than ever before – Figure that one out. But the kids compete like mad with each against other to get admitted to the elite schools.

&: How does “Are You Smart Enough?” examine faculty’s preference for teaching the “smartest” students and how does this preference create inequities for underserved students?

Astin: The basic thrust of the book is that college faculty are preoccupied with what I call “smartness.” They use simplistic ways of deciding who the smartest students are, mainly by standardized tests but also to some extent on a student’s GPA. Both of these measures, particularly the standardized tests, work against the interests of underrepresented groups. If tests had significant educational value—if they could be used to strengthen the learning process–it might be a different story, but why use measures that discriminate against certain disadvantaged groups but have little or no educational value?

There are relatively few faculty members who want to teach underprepared students – it’s almost an embarrassment to have to teach underprepared students. And yet here we have this huge problem in higher education: [underrepresented] students are coming in who have not been given the best options. They enroll in community colleges, where they attend part time and commute as opposed to living on campus and attending full time, and are often taught by lower-paid adjuncts and part-time faculty. A very high percent of community college students drop out. When this happens, students are much more likely to become unemployed or even incarcerated.

The priority that is given to the education of these students is obviously a very low one, even though, if you look at it from the perspective of the welfare of the larger society, educating underprepared students may be the most important task that higher education has. We haven’t prioritized the education of underprepared students; we’ve done just the reverse. We’ve prioritized the education of the smartest students, and I use “smart” loosely here, to indicate those with high test scores and high grades. So there’s a huge inequity here. If you were from Mars, and you came here and tried to understand or rationalize the California system on educational grounds, then it appears that the least well-prepared students are least in need of a high quality education and the best prepared students are most in need of such an education. But the reality is the reverse: the best prepared students are much more able to fend for themselves than are the least well prepared students.

Much of this craziness can be traced to our preoccupation with smartness—attracting the smartest students we can find, giving them special privileges like honors colleges. [We hire] the smartest faculty we can, with smartness defined by publications rather than teaching skill, and [give] the best researchers higher salaries and reduced teaching “loads” (we never hear of research “loads”).

Judging from our assessment tools and how we use them, we seem more interested in merely identifying smart students than in educating students well, since we seldom assess how students are learning and developing over time. And even our preferred ways of assessing smartness—grades and standardized tests—represent a very narrow conception of talent, ignoring important qualities such as creativity, leadership, and good citizenship, qualities that many colleges claim to be fostering in their mission statements.

Colleges should begin encouraging their faculties to talk about some of these issues and practices, to examine the larger societal consequences of focusing so much of our energy and resources on the smartest students. College and their faculties also need to begin to place a greater priority on educating average and underprepared students, since the fate of these students is likely to have much greater consequences for the long term welfare of our society. To put it succinctly: We in the higher education community need to begin talking about these issues, and the sooner the better.

I’m going to make a lot of enemies with this book. (laughs) But that’s not my intent. It’s a polemic – no data. I decided to get it off my chest.

Photo by Beth Goodhue, UCLA

&: What is your greatest hope for the next generation of college students?

Astin: I think there’s a growing awareness among people of that age about the importance of having a society where people are accepted for who they are, rather than what group they belong to. On an informal basis, I see that with my granddaughters and their peers.

Racism and homophobia and things like that are sort of alien to them. They raise their eyebrows and [ask], ‘Why would you treat people differently because of their race or sexual orientation?’ They don’t have the past [knowledge] of these things that I do, and it’s so nice to see them take it for granted that people should be treated equally.

The hopes I have for the younger generation is that people will accept each other on the basis of who they are and not what category they belong to, or what race or religion they are members of. Our research shows that colleges tend to cultivate and reinforce that kind of acceptance [with] study abroad, associating with kids of a different race, or taking interdisciplinary courses.

People have become more empathic and more accepting, more sort of [citizens] of the world. The data from our spirituality project supports that. Merely going to college seems to strengthen that worldview.