Money (Not God) on Their Minds Study finds today’s college freshman are financially motivated, good without God, and ready to rally

A study released in February by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles found that today’s incoming college students are more likely to join student-led protests than at almost any time in the last fifty years, which is how long HERI’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program has been conducting its freshman survey.

Given racial justice issues brought to the fore in cities across the United States in the past few years, the finding that Black and Latino students were more likely to protest than white and Asian students isn’t surprising. But in all categories, a markedly higher number of incoming freshman in 2015 said they’d protest than those entering college the year before.

The study analyzed responses from 141,189 first-time, full-time freshmen at 199 four-year colleges and universities in the United States. Last year marked the first time students were able to pick “agnostic” or “atheist” as their religious affiliations. Nearly 30 percent chose agnostic, atheist, or “none.”

According to a Chronicle of Higher Education analysis of the study, the number of students who said being financially well-off was “very important” or “essential” has been climbing steadily, from 47 percent in 1975 to 82 percent in 2015. Conversely, those who prioritize developing a meaningful philosophy of life dropped from 68 percent to 47 percent over the same time period.

More encouraging from a humanistic viewpoint is the finding that in 2015, a peak 75 percent of incoming college freshman felt helping others who are in difficulty was key. (The low was 62 percent in 2000.)

Are they socialist capitalists? Liberals with expensive tastes or just a yearning for financial independence? Increasingly secular, these students certainly seem like strong candidates for the humanist label.

In a recent Psychology Today piece on the role humanism can play in “political revolution,” AHA Legal Director David Niose contends that while liberal churches have long played a role in progressive movements, they may be losing ground as more and more young people give up religion. Can organized humanism help fill the void?

“Humanist groups have been springing up around the country and indeed the world, many of them well-positioned to serve as instruments of change,” Niose writes, noting that

With neither labor nor liberal religion nearly as influential as they were in their heydays, strong and autonomous organizations that are poised to enunciate a progressive vision, and fight for it as well, are few and far between. If there is any hope of maintaining constant pressure on the political establishment to move toward major, transformative change, humanists surely must play a role.

The Secular Student Alliance (SSA), which has affiliate groups on college campuses across the United States, is certainly encouraged by some of the trends reported in the UCLA study. “Secular students all over the country realize that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice because people bend it,” says SSA Executive Director August Brunsman. “These students don’t think anyone is coming to save them. They know that if they want the future world to be better, they have to work for it.”