- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2000

College freshmen are losing interest in smoking and drinking beer but also in going to class, an annual survey on first-year students has found.

A little more than half of the nation's freshmen said they frequently or occasionally drank beer the lowest level in 34 years.

"Colleges have tried very hard to discourage drinking," said Linda J. Sax, an assistant professor of education at UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, which has surveyed freshman views at the nation's colleges and universities every year since 1965.

But the good news on substance abuse is tempered with concerns in the classroom.

Researchers noted that academic disengagement is on the rise, with a record number of students saying they are frequently bored in classes and often tardy or absent. The percentage of students taking remedial classes has also hit a 30-year high.

"Our findings underscore the need for colleges and universities to find more effective ways toaccommodate the growing numbers of students who may be coming to college academically unprepared," said Alexander Astin, a UCLA education professor and founding director of the survey.

While a record number of freshmen say they finished high school with an A average, there is mounting evidence that more schools are holding students back in an attempt to end social promotion. More than a fourth of all students start college at age 19, instead of the standard 18, the study found.

Miss Sax suggested two reasons for the decline in the number of students who drink: Alcohol-free residence halls are becoming more popular at many schools, and drinking has already lost its allure for many teens.

"They have seen it in high school and are saying, 'It's immature, it's destructive and I don't want to be around it on a regular basis,' " she said.

Although alcohol use has been waning steadily, the UCLA researchers say they were surprised to learn that fewer students were smoking cigarettes. Freshman smoking had reached record highs as recently as two years ago.

"It may be that students are becoming more aware of the dangers of smoking as the tobacco industry is having to admit more of the dangers," Miss Sax said.

UCLA's fall 1999 survey culled the views of more than 360,000 students who attend 683 two- and four-year colleges and universities. The results are intended to give educators a snapshot of the thoughts and views of their newest classes of students, researchers said.

Jacqueline King, director of federal policy analysis at the American Council on Education in Washington, which helped with the survey, called the survey's findings on drinking "pretty remarkable" and said they may be the direct result of public awareness campaigns that began in the 1980s.

Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving have succeeded in getting their message out, and parents have also gotten more serious about the issue, she said.

"There have been so many well-publicized tragic cases around drinking and driving with teen-agers who had said, 'maybe this is not so great,' or 'if I'm going to drink, it may not be so great to get stupid drunk,' " she said.

The survey also found:

* Interest in teaching hit its highest level in 30 years, with 11.2 percent of freshmen saying they planned on careers in education. The numbers are much lower, however, than in 1968, when 23.5 percent of freshman said they wanted to teach.

* While volunteerism in high school is at record levels, interest in social activism is dropping off, hitting its lowest level since 1986. Only a little more than a third of all students said they felt it was important or essential "to influence social values."

* Stress levels are also rising, particularly among female students. New students, say researchers, are worried about completing all of the tasks they have at school, and more than a fourth say they're likely to work full-time while in college, giving them less time to concentrate on academics.

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