The Cooperative Institutional Research Program recently surveyed America's brightest young people. It found them overwhelmingly materialistic: interested more than ever primarily in making money.
Even those of us who have noted the increasing "pragmatism" of America's college students may be shocked by the results of the new survey.
Being "very well off financially" now tops the list of "essential or very important" reasons for going to college. To "develop a meaningful philosophy of life," which used to rank high, is now the lowest it has been in the 20-year history of the annual survey sponsored by the American Council on Education and UCLA.
The report on nearly 290,000 freshmen in more than 500 colleges and universities showed 75.6 percent -- a 20-year high -- interested primarily in financial success, while only 39.4 percent -- a 20-year low -- listed philosophical considerations as important. In 1966 "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" was listed as important by nearly 83 percent of college freshmen; making money was listed as important by only 49.9 percent in 1971, the first year the item was included on the questionnaire.
"While we can only speculate about the reasons for the contrasting patterns for these two values, it is possible that they reflect a common underlying shift in student values over the past decade," said Alexander W. Astin, UCLA professor and director of its Higher Education Research Institute.
"More specifically, it could be argued that acceptance of the goal of making a lot of money obviates the need for some students to develop a 'meaningful philosophy of life.' Indeed, it may be that some students view making money as a kind of 'philosophy of life' in itself."
Whatever the reason, he said, recent trends show an unprecedented concern with money, power and status. The biggest declines involve altruistic interests and social concerns: helping others, promoting interracial understanding, cleaning up the environment and participating in community-action programs.
Business has become the No. 1 college major, while interest in English and the humanities has fallen sharply, with teaching registering the greatest decline of all. The newest survey does show a slight increase in education as a career, but that seems to be due to recent increases in teachers' pay.
If today's students are more money-minded than their counterparts of earlier years, they don't see themselves as particularly bright. For instance, 40.5 percent of the freshmen surveyed indicated that a "very important" reason for going to college was "to improve my reading and studying skills" -- up from 22.2 percent in 1971. The proportion of freshmen who expect to need tutoring in specific courses has nearly doubled in the past decade, from 6.8 percent to 11.2 percent. And despite the fact that their high school grade averages are higher, today's students are less likely than those of the '60s to describe themselves as "above average" in academic ability.
The newest survey, taken last fall, fails to document the frequently reported increase in political conservatism among college students. "The real migration in student political attitudes has not been from left to right but from 'liberal' to 'middle-of-the-road,' " Astin said.
What seems to be a shift toward political and social conservatism, he said, may in fact be nothing more than another manifestation of "a rising tide of materialism coupled with student concern about an uncertain economic future, rather than strong support for conservative political and social policies."
That "rising tide of materialism" is the most disturbing finding of the survey, particularly since the respondents are college freshmen, traditionally a hotbed of youthful idealism. If our brightest young people are overwhelmingly money-minded when they go to college, what are they likely to be like when the time comes for them to assume the financial burdens of raising a family?
That question, like the question of how to change the attitudes of young Americans, is beyond the scope of Astin and his staff. Their survey is a thermometer, designed only to take the present temperature of the attitudes, values and life goals of college freshmen.
Changing that temperature is a matter for the rest of us.