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Meanwhile, students these days expect the climbing walls and high-end dorms that smaller, poorer schools can’t afford. And a growing proportion of college students are the first generation in their families to attend. They’ve proved a tougher sell on the idea they can afford to spend four years of college “exploring.”

In UCLA’s massive national survey of college freshman, “getting a better job” recently surpassed “learning about things that interest me” as the top reason for going to college. The percentage calling job preparation a very important reason rose to 86 percent, up from 70 percent in 2006, before the economy tanked.