updated 1/22/2009 3:16:28 AM ET 2009-01-22T08:16:28

More than ever, politics and money are on the minds of new college students. The latest installment of a giant annual survey of college freshmen shows political engagement at a 40-year high, and more students than ever planning to take jobs on the side and settling for second-choice schools.

With last year's historic election heating up, nearly 36 percent of freshmen starting last fall reported frequently discussing politics in the last year, according to the survey by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute. That surpassed the previous high of 34 percent recorded in 1968.

As recently as 2002, fewer than 20 percent of students reported politics were a frequent topic of conversation.

The 43rd annual survey, released Thursday, was given to more than 240,000 incoming four-year college students during orientations from April through October. Most participants filled out paper surveys.

Feeling economic pinch
Even before the worst of the recession, students were feeling the national economic pinch. Just under half (49 percent) planned to get a job to meet expenses during college — the highest figure in the 32 years the survey has asked the question.

Meanwhile, the percentage of students attending their first-choice college dropped to a 34-year low of 61 percent. The figure had been declining gradually but has fallen sharply, by nine points, since 2005.

The drop may partly reflect tougher competition for slots as a demographic bubble moved through high school in recent years. But cost was also apparently a factor. More than 17 percent of students were accepted by their first-choice school but chose somewhere else.

The proportion of students reporting financial aid offers played a "very important" or "essential" role in their college choice jumped more than 3 points from 2007 to 43 percent — the highest recorded in the 36 years that question has been asked.

"I would expect that we're going to continue to see more concern about finances, and have that probably be worse next year unless there's some miraculous turnaround," co-author John Pryor said.

Students didn't appear more concerned about their ability to afford college at all, Pryor said. However, they were anticipating they would have to patch together funding from more sources, including jobs, savings and resources from parents and relatives.

Part-time job doesn't hurt experience
College students who have to work during school are not necessarily at a disadvantage, noted George Kuh, director of Indiana University's Center for Postsecondary Research. His group's National Survey of Student Engagement, another giant study, has found students' college experience usually isn't hurt by part-time jobs — particularly if they work on campus. However, working more than around 25-30 hours per week can be harmful.

The latest UCLA survey found 8 percent of students expecting to work full-time — the highest figure since researchers began asking the question in 1982.

Among the survey's other findings:

  • The proportion of incoming students calling themselves liberal rose to 31 percent, the highest in 35 years. Another 21 percent called themselves conservative, down from 23 percent in 2007.
  • Just under two-thirds (66 percent) support the right to same-sex marriage.
  • The proportion of freshmen calling it "essential" or "very important" to help clean up the environment jumped from 22 percent in 2006 to about 30 percent last year. Nearly three-quarters said addressing global warming should be a federal priority.
  • Support for legalizing marijuana edged up about 3 points to 41 percent. However, the UCLA authors said their findings "might be less of an indication of permissive marijuana usage and more about how one views government regulation of this area." They noted other research showing only 32 percent of 2008 high school seniors had used marijuana in the last year.

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