What’s the average first-year college student like? It turns out that there’s research that’s been done every year for the past 41 years to answer just that. Recently the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) released the latest results from the September 2006 incoming class, titled “The American Freshman – National Norms for 2006.” It includes results from 271,441 first-year students from 393 different colleges and universities.

According to their research summary [.pdf], college students are more likely to discuss politics with the percent of those who identify themselves as liberal (28.4%) at the highest point since 1975 while those who identify themselves as conservative (23.9%) reached a record high since the inception of the survey. These students are also more likely to support gay rights, with 61.2% agreeing that “same sex couples should have the right to legal marital status.” The report also records variation on a number of issues (e.g. abortion, death penalty, legalizing marijuana, etc.) according to political orientation.

They also conducted research into factors affecting student choice of college or university. While financial considerations do play a role, they found that academic reputation, graduates getting good jobs, a visit to the campus, school size, and good social reputation were the top five factors in students first choice of school. Other topics are covered as well, including factors relating to race/ethnicity and education.

The site also includes links to PowerPoint slides with their results (including some nice graphs and tables), along with links to various news articles and reports that provide accounts of the research results.