01/26/2015 02:42 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2015

Marking 50 Years of Data Collection on College Freshmen

In 1960, while working at the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC), Dr. Alexander Astin understood the importance of accounting for student inputs. Namely, he recognized that elite institutions should not receive so much credit for the success of their alumni; instead, many of these students arrived on campus equipped with the skills and resources for success. This early study led to a subsequent national examination of entering student characteristics in 1961 at NMSC in which 248 colleges and universities and more than 120,000 students participated. NMSC and Astin later followed up this cohort in 1962 and 1965, allowing for longitudinal analyses of these college students.

Astin moved into a research director position at the American Council on Education in 1964, believing that the work he was doing at NMSC needed to get into the hands of college presidents. After a request for funding from private foundations came through, Astin and ACE began working on creating and piloting this input-focused instrument. In just under a year, Astin and his colleagues had developed a four-page, key-punched instrument and piloted it in the fall of 1965 with 61 colleges and universities participating.

What is now the CIRP (Cooperative Institutional Research Program) Freshman Survey officially launched in the fall of 1966. With support from private foundations, Astin and ACE administered the 1966 Freshman Survey to incoming students at 309 two- and four-year colleges and universities identified through a stratified random sampling strategy. Roughly 250,000 students participated in the inaugural CIRP Freshman Survey.

In 1973, Astin and his wife Helen accepted faculty positions at UCLA, and the CIRP Freshman Survey followed them out west. For more than four decades, UCLA has housed the largest and longest-running study of college students.

This year - 2015 - marks the 50th administration of the CIRP Freshman Survey. Quite a bit has changed since the inaugural national administration in 1966, but many questions remain. For example, we continue to ask about students' degree aspirations, their concerns about financing their college education, and their confidence in their abilities across several dimensions. Likewise, for 50 consecutive years, we have asked some of the same life and career goal questions and many of the same expectations students have about college.

In five decades, the survey has grown substantially to cover the diverse set of experiences and skills students bring with them to college. We now ask about students' pluralistic orientation - their ability to engage across difference and their openness to having their views challenged. As has been necessary in 50 years, the academic major and career choices on the survey has been refreshed to keep pace with changing opportunities in a dynamic labor market. The survey has also evolved to recognize the diversity of backgrounds students have, as we touch not only on issues of race, sex, and class but also cover dimensions of sexuality, gender identity, political ideology, and religion.

On February 5, we will release our 49th report on the national portrait of incoming college students. In just over a year (in early 2016), we will release the 50th edition of the national norms from the CIRP Freshman Survey. As we begin counting down to that release date with our 50 in 50 blog series. For the 50 weeks leading up to the release of the 50th national norms report, we will review some of the key findings from each of our monographs, contextualizing the findings and some of the more peculiar survey items with the current events of the time.