The American College Student: Three Decades of Change
Alexander W. Astin
The Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) was founded in 1966 as a national longitudinal study of undergraduates attending different types of colleges and universities. 1 While the basic design of the study is to examine the comparative impact of different college environments by means of periodic longitudinal follow-ups of students who were initially assessed as entering freshmen (see, for example, Astin, 1977, 1982, 1993; Pascarella and Terenzini, 1991), the entering freshman survey tends to attract more media attention than do the longitudinal studies because the "trends" associated with each new survey are seen as a kind of "Gallup Poll" that makes interesting copy and "sound bites" for the various news media. Media attention notwithstanding, a careful examination of the results from the first thirty-one surveys ( 1966-1996) provides an extremely interesting and informative portrait of the changing character of American college students. While reflecting changes that directly affect higher education, the trend data generated by these surveys can also be viewed as indicators of our changing society. In this essay I will provide an overview of these three decades of data from the CIRP, highlighting key findings and discussing the possible significance that these findings may have for higher education and for American society at large.
Between 1966 and 1996 the entering freshman survey was completed by more than 9 million entering freshmen at more than 1,500 accredited colleges and universities. 2 A complete tabulation of the data from each of these annual surveys was recently published by the Higher Education Research Institute ( Astin, Parrott, Korn, and Sax, 1997).