Every year the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) conducts and publishes a study on the attitudes and views of first year American college students. Called the “Freshman Survey,” the study is administered at hundreds of two-year colleges and four-year colleges and universities to hundreds of thousands of entering students during orientation or registration.
This year’s findings, comprised of data from 204,000 full-time, first year college students from 270 colleges and universities nationwide (although not at UMBC), were released today. Here are some of the highlights:
- This year’s incoming class of first year students taking the survey are decidedly more liberal on social issues than previous groups
- Students participating in this year’s survey appear to be more academically-oriented than their predecessors, with respondents indicating they spent more time on homework in high school and enrolled in more AP classes than those students surveyed in past years
- “Getting a better job” continues to be the number one motivation for going to college among students included in the study
- Social networking sites are further integrated into students’ lives
While I find the numbers themselves to be interesting, I think an even more fascinating aspect of this survey is how various media outlets report this information to the public.
For example, let’s look at some of the headlines for stories covering the release of this study:
The Chronicle of Higher Education: Mixed Portrait of Freshman Political Views: Their beliefs may lean liberal, but their politics tell a different story
Los Angeles Times: More college freshmen see getting good job as key goal, poll finds
San Jose Mercury News: Liberalism spreading among college freshmen, survey finds
Business Week: College Freshmen Are More Liberal on Gay Marriage, Abortion
On one level one could easily (and rightly) point to the fact that different people are writing these headlines across the country, and thus, there are going to be different words used in different publications. But I think there’s also something to be said for looking more deeply at what these particular headlines emphasize about the findings and the language they use to make their point.
For example, the New York Times is the only outlet listed here to discuss college students’ financial difficulties in the context of this study. The New York Times also happens to have a reputation as a liberal newspaper (even though it would maintain that the editorial page might lean to the left, but the other pages are filled with objective news, in accordance with journalistic tradition). Is it a coincidence, then, that the Times is the only paper to appear to implicitly call for more student aid–a traditionally liberal cause?
Meanwhile, why might the San Jose Mercury News pair “liberalism” with “spreading,” a word that is also often used in conjunction with diseases or viruses or sickness? Is there any possibility that it might connect with the conservative reputation of its parent company, MediaNews? Could some enterprising editor craft a headline that s/he thinks might make the bosses smile?
The point I offer here isn’t that we might all concoct conspiracy theories regarding media outlets and their biases, but that we acknowledge there are many varying layers of subjective, messy, complex worldviews that this information must pass through in order to get to all of us. UCLA researchers, editors, producers, staff writers, reporters, bloggers, and others use these hundreds of thousands of data sets to construct a profile–the “true student”–who represents all of the life experiences, the views, the values, the fashion sense, the online behavior, and the academic prowess of a typical first year college student. And while this information can be useful for tapping into the beliefs, attitudes, and style of the dominant culture, I can’t help but wonder how many students’ experiences are not captured in this portrait.
Do you see yours represented?