According to a 200,000-person annual survey administered by the University of California, Los Angeles, college freshmen across the nation are increasingly serious about their academic studies, are more left-leaning politically and are attending their first-choice colleges less often due to higher tuition bills and reduced financial aid.
The survey results were released near the end of January.
Penn, for its part, mirrors many of the trends but differs in some of the more drastic findings, such as diminishing financial aid.
As a participant in the survey itself, Penn makes its school-specific results available online through the Office of Institutional Research and Analysis, though it has yet to publish its most recent findings.
According to the survey, freshmen across the board are becoming more academically oriented.
The number of students who reported having taken five or more Advanced Placement exams increased from 15.5 percent in 2009 to 18.9 percent in 2011, and those reporting that they studied six or more hours per week also increased from 37.3 to 39.5 percent.
Although the actual changes may seem small, the Higher Education Research Institute — the UCLA branch responsible for the study — emphasized that the large sample size makes the results significant.
Engineering freshman Jeff Roman noted that he felt Penn was very academically serious, in spite of its reputation as the “social Ivy.”
“Penn students will come back at 3 or 4 a.m. [after partying], and then wake up early the next day to start on work,” Roman said.
Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dennis DeTurck said he has also noticed an increased focus on academics in his own interactions with freshmen.
“Penn students just keep getting better,” DeTurck said. “They can do serious, professional-level research,” he added, noting the more serious research as a growing phenomenon over the last 15 years.
DeTurck also noted Penn’s strong preprofessional bent, something that the UCLA survey noted as becoming more common at all universities and colleges. Until 2006, the number one reason given for attending college was “to learn more about things that interest me,” according to the report. Since then, however, “to be able to get a better job” has taken its place.
Many Penn freshmen echoed this sentiment.
“I wouldn’t be paying [tuition] if I didn’t think Penn would pay off in the long run,” said College freshman Mikal Davis-West. “It may be ‘wrong’ to say, but it’s the truth.”
However, DeTurck noted that this attitude may be on the decline at Penn, pointing to initiatives like the Integrated Studies Program as evidence of demand for a broader liberal arts education.
The study also discussed trends from which Penn may diverge.
It emphasized that freshmen nationwide are becoming more liberal in their political outlook. Support for traditionally liberal policies — like legalizing marijuana, equal rights for same-sex couples and preferential treatment for disadvantaged students in college admissions — were on the rise.
However, this shift at Penn is not so apparent.
While approximately 44 percent of Penn students in 2010 identified as liberal, that total marked a decrease from 47 percent in 2008, and is lower than the average of 46 percent at Penn’s peer schools.
Additionally, on a number of other policies — including federal regulation of handguns, environmental protection and universal health care — students drifted right. For most policies, students came in as slightly more conservative than peer schools.
Still, Engineering freshman Emily Weiss, who identifies as politically conservative, said Penn’s campus still feels decidedly liberal.
“We’re the minority,” she said. “But I came here expecting that.”
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