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Today's college freshmen, explained in 4 charts

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Every year, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles releases a survey of more than 100,000 college freshmen at a wide range of four-year colleges around the country. This year, they learned that today's teenagers are, well, more boring (and better-behaved!) than earlier generations. They were less likely to smoke, drink, and party in high school. In college, they're less likely to socialize. They have high academic ambitions. And they're more depressed.

Here's what they learned about the class of 2018:

1) They're less likely to hang out with their friends

This chart will launch a thousand hand-wringing pieces about how young Millennials prefer interacting with their phones to interacting with each other. The percentage of students who socialize for more than 16 hours per week is at an all-time low — 18 percent — and the proportion who socialize for less than 5 hours per week is at an all-time high, 39 percent.

(Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA)

The survey doesn't delve into what they're doing instead (working? spending time with family? studying more?), but it does note that time on social networks is way up. In 2007, 19 percent of students spent more than six hours per week on online social networks; now 27 percent do.

2) They're less religious than 18-year-olds in the past

About 28 percent of students said they had no religious preference — up from 15 percent in 1971, when UCLA first surveyed freshmen:

College freshmen religious preference

(Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA)

Even at Catholic colleges, 15 percent said they had no religious preference.

This is in line with national trends. The Pew Research Center has identified a growing number of adults who describe their religion as "nothing in particular," a trend that's particularly pronounced among young adults.

3) They didn't party in high school

In line with widely reported trends, high school seniors are drinking and smoking less than their predecessors. Fewer than half say they "frequently" or "occasionally" drank wine, beer, or hard liquor during their senior year. The percentage of frequent smokers has dropped from 9 percent in 1981 to 2 percent in 2014.

College freshmen drinking and smoking in high school

4) They're more depressed than students in the past

This year's freshmen rate their mental health as worse than in class since UCLA started the survey. Nearly 10 percent say they feel "frequently" depressed, and only 51 percent said their emotional health is above average.

It would be mathematically impossible for everyone's mental health to be above average. But a majority of college freshmen tend to rate themselves above average in most categories — leadership ability, physical health, and academic prowess among them — and in the past mental health has been similar, too.

5) They really want to go to grad school

In the 1970s, just over half of college freshmen thought their education would be done with a bachelor's degree. Their counterparts today expect to continue going to school once they've earned that credential. About 43 percent expect to earn a master's degree, and another 33 percent want to earn a doctorate or a degree in law or medicine.

And, interestingly, there isn't much of a gap between students who are the first in their family to go to college and students with college-educated parents. In the 1970s, that gap was much bigger:

Grad school chart

The change is partly a result of women's ambition. Women used to be less likely than men to say they'd continue their education to earn a Ph.D or a law or medical degree. Now they're more likely. Men's ambition, meanwhile, has been fairly constant.

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