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92% of college freshmen are optimistic about their lives, poll finds

First-year students who responded to an online NBC News/Generation Lab poll were less confident about the direction of the U.S. and the world.
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The pandemic, a not-so-distant recession and a politically polarized America notwithstanding, first-year college students are overwhelmingly optimistic about their future, even if they’re less confident about the direction of the country and the world, a new poll found.

A whopping 92 percent of the freshmen — attending either two-year or four-year institutions — say they’re optimistic about their personal lives, including 28 percent who are “super” optimistic, according to the online NBC News/Generation Lab poll of 1,108 incoming students conducted Aug. 18-19 nationwide.

Another 92 percent think they’ll get the job they want after they graduate, 88 percent definitely or probably plan to get married, and nearly 4 in 5 plan to have children. 

Image: College students on campus.
Incoming college students from across the country are overwhelmingly optimistic about their lives and job prospects, even if they’re less confident about the direction of the United States and the world, according to an online NBC News/Generation Lab poll of these incoming students.Michael Conroy / AP file

“I’m super optimistic about my life because, if I can go to college and have all these opportunities in the midst of a pandemic, I don’t think that there’s much that can stop me,” said Kelsi VanOrder, 17, who’s attending Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan. 

Will Grannis, 19, a freshman at the University of Notre Dame, had a similar take. “I think my experience in high school taught me that even when things look really dark, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel — even if you can’t quite see it,” he said.

Lauryn Cook, 35, who’s attending Daytona State College in Florida, is also optimistic “because I have all the right things happening for me,” she said.  “I’m going to college so that I can better my life and the quality of life for my children. I am in a relationship with someone who supports me, and that’s amazing.”

But the college students who responded to the poll, which had an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.3 percentage points, are much less optimistic when the subject turns to the future of the nation and the world. 

Less than half of the respondents — 48 percent — said they’re optimistic about the United States, while 60 percent are optimistic about the world. 

“The more personal you get, the more optimism you get,” said Cyrus Beschloss, founder of Generation Lab, which conducted the survey. 

Anxiety, depression and trust

Although the students are more optimistic about their personal lives, they also admit the toll the last year has taken on their lives. 

Sixty-two percent of the class of 2025 say they’ve experienced anxiety in the last year, while 47 percent say they’ve experienced depression. 

And 58 percent of those who have experienced anxiety and/or depression say the pandemic made things worse for them. 

These students also place more trust in those closest to them. 

An overwhelming 93 percent of them said they trust their parents either a lot or somewhat, 66 percent said they trust local elected officials, and 64 percent trust local police.

But the degree of trust is less for state elected officials (55 percent), the president of the United States (48 percent), Congress (43 percent) and the national media (36 percent).

Staying on the topic of national politics, 58 percent of the students approve of President Joe Biden’s job performance, though just 5 percent say they “strongly” approve. Forty-two percent disapprove, including 12 percent who do so strongly. 

By comparison, 70 percent of these students say they have a negative opinion of former President Donald Trump. 

Liberal views on abortion and race

Additionally, the poll found 73 percent of the college freshmen believing that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, versus 27 percent who believe it should be illegal in all or most cases. That’s a higher support for abortion rights than polls of U.S. adults typically show

What’s more, 60 percent of them think that a person’s gender can be different from someone’s sex at birth. 

And a combined 79 percent of these students believe that American society is racist, with 22 percent calling it “totally racist” and 57 percent calling it “somewhat racist.” 

Fifty-seven percent of those who say that American society is racist think that should be taught in elementary school, while 32 precent say it should be taught in middle school.

 22 percent are unvaccinated

Finally, the poll found that a combined 77 percent of these college freshmen say they’ve received the Covid-19 vaccine, either fully or partially, while 22 percent say they haven’t done so. 

Of those who say they haven’t been vaccinated and won’t take it under any circumstance, the top reasons for their opposition include being worried about side effects, that the vaccine is too untested, and that they’re not too worried about the coronavirus. 

The results from the poll — conducted from a proprietary non-opt-in panel built from a database of every U.S. college and university — were weighted by gender, race and institution type using population statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.