College Students Getting Richer, Pickier, Alloy Finds

The returning class of college students is bigger, spends more and registers higher in measures of civic commitment than any of its predecessors, according to Alloy Media + Marketing, which recently released the results of the eighth annual College Explorer survey conducted by Harris Interactive. Among other things, the April online survey of 1,554 matriculating students ages 18-30 documents their biggest civic concerns, their favorite products, and their changing use of technology.

Overall there are 13.6 million people ages 18-30 set to matriculate in Fall 2008, boasting about $237 billion in consumer spending power--an increase of 19.7% over 2007, when the returning class wielded "just" $198 billion. On a per-capita basis, the average spending power increased from just under $14,900 in 2007 to just over $17,400 in 2008. Meanwhile, their discretionary spending power rose 10.4%, from $48 billion to $53 billion; that means on a per-capita basis, average discretionary spending power rose about 8%, from $3,600 to $3,900.

The increase in total spending power may be surprising at first glance, coming as it does during an economic slowdown--but it is probably due to several different factors. First, students ages 17-19 who matriculate straight out of high school tend to be relatively isolated from macroeconomic conditions because they are still dependent on their parents. About 85% of students attending four-year colleges match this description, according to the U.S. Department of Education; meanwhile, 56% of all four-year students come from families with annual incomes of $60,000 or more, and 30% come from families with incomes of $92,000 or more.

Second, the number of employed adults ages 24 and up who are going to college is on the rise, including institutions with curricula of two years or less. Students who match this description account for 28% of enrollment at two-year institutions and 46% at institutions of less than two years. And finally, schools, foundations, and federal and state governments are increasing financial aid in the forms of loans and grants: on average, 70.8% of college students receive some kind of financial aid in their first year, with an average payout of $7,500.)

College students are not just wielding more spending power; they are also showing increasing commitment to social and environmental causes. Not surprisingly, this translates into affinity for brands and products perceived as fighting the good fight. Forty-one percent of Alloy respondents said they prefer "socially responsible" brands--up from 37% in 2007. Of course, definitions vary: 69% defined "socially responsible" as "donating money to a cause or charity" or "using eco-friendly or 'green' business practices." Sixty-eight percent said it meant employing "fair labor practices."

Alloy was able to solicit data on brand preferences based on perceived corporate responsibility from 49% of respondents. In the food and beverage category, the winner was Yoplait; Toyota topped the automotive category; Burt's Bees won in personal care; Target was the top retailer; and Nike won the race in shoes and apparel.

On the technology front, roughly 70% of students own a laptop--an increase of 67% over the 2005 study. Meanwhile, desktop ownership dropped 34% in the same period. 62% said they watch TV online, with 34% visiting YouTube. 67% own an MP3 player, and 23% are using it to watch downloadable videos.

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