Already inclined toward liberalism, college freshmen are leaning even farther left on key political issues, a nationwide survey of first-year students has found.
An all-time high of 71.3 percent of the new students support same-sex marriage, 6.4 percentage points higher than in 2009, according to the annual survey of more than 200,000 freshmen conducted by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute.
Nearly 43 percent of conservative freshmen said gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry.
Opinions on abortion, marijuana legalization, immigration and affirmative action also grew more liberal in 2011, according to data released Wednesday. The 270-school survey -- the country's largest sampling of college students -- was first used in 1966.
"It's not so much that liberal students are becoming more liberal," said Linda DeAngelo, one of the report's authors. "It's that students who describe themselves as conservative are becoming more progressive."
A little more than 22 percent of respondents described themselves as conservative or "far right." About 30 percent said they were liberal or "far left," while 47.4 percent called themselves "middle of the road."
Despite the apparent liberalization, political advocates hoping to recruit students to their causes need to realize the survey is more reflective of young people's tolerance on social issues, not enthusiasm, said Ange-Marie Hancock, a political-science professor at the University of Southern California.
"They're not like ATMs, where you can just withdraw their support," she said. "You have to cultivate them as voters."
Conservative students in the Bay Area said they weren't surprised by the shift to the left. In a region that gave birth to California's gay-marriage push, political views are not always black and white, students said.
"My time is spent more on fiscal issues," said Mark Luluan, a 24-year-old Cal State East Bay graduate student and chairman of the campus College Republicans chapter. "Over the past four years, we haven't really dealt with traditional socially conservative issues. Students are more concerned about getting a job after graduation."
The same is true among San Jose State University conservatives, said 19-year-old sophomore Mark Williams, chairman of that school's College Republicans.
"I think the conservatives in our club are not as focused on social issues," he said. "We're not really for or against" same-sex marriage.
At UC Berkeley, where liberal politics have long been the cultural norm, several students said Wednesday they rarely discuss politics with their peers and they rarely come across students who are outwardly conservative.
But being conservative would not earn a Cal student a scarlet letter, said 18-year-old freshman Alex Mangels.
"I don't think being conservative would be a huge problem," said Mangels, a Lafayette native who said he did not yet know how to describe his political beliefs. "They're not going to hate you for it."
The survey also revealed that alcohol consumption dropped to an all-time low in 2011, with 35.4 percent saying they drank beer as high-school seniors.
Just less than 58 percent of respondents said they were attending their first-choice college -- the lowest number since 1974 -- and more high-school students took advanced-placement courses and studied longer than in the past.
"I think high-school students are stressed about getting into college," said DeAngelo, of UCLA. "There's an increased pressure to perform."
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Contact him at 510-208-6488. Follow him at Twitter.com/MattKrupnick.