College Students Setting Records in Spending, Civic Engagement, Digital Connectivity

August 5, 2008

This article is included in these additional categories:

Media & Entertainment | Social Media | Television | Videogames | Youth & Gen X

A record-level 13.6 million college students (age 18-30) will soon arrive on campus and account for a record $237 billion in spending this year – up 20% from ’07, according to Alloy Media + Marketing’s 8th annual College Explorer study, powered by Harris Interactive.

That’s the largest spending jump since the study’s inception, Alloy said. Moreover, college students’ media consumption, political and social concerns, and purchasing preferences have been markedly redefined, it found.

“This year’s class reveals an empowered group of consumers. From their purchasing decisions and media consumption to their pull at the polls, this college consumer is clearly in control and showing their strength in numbers,” said Dana Markow, VP, Senior Consultant, Youth Center of Excellence, Harris Interactive.

Judging Brands

College students continue to demonstrate strong commitment toward the brands they feel are contributing positively to world issues and the environment. A growing 41% (net) of respondents prefer socially responsible brands – compared with the 37% saying so last year. Also, that 41% figure is 24% higher than in ’06.

The factors that determine how corporations earn high status with students by having a positive impact on society:


  • 69% of students cited “donating money to a cause or charity”
  • An equal proportion cited “using eco-friendly or ‘green’ business practices.”
  • 68% cited “fair labor practices” (down slightly from top ranking last year)
  • Also of note, almost half (49%) give brands a hint on what might sway them: social messages incorporated into advertising have an effect.

Students also appear to be increasingly aware of the positive effect of their own actions. The study finds a record number of students recycling – 71% report doing so in the past six months, up a measurable 54% since 2006, and this wealthy bunch are proving to be philanthropic minded, with a significant 40% stating they have donated to a cause they believe in within the past six months.

Top Socially Responsible Brands

Alloy asked students to cast their choice for the corporations they feel are the “Top Socially Responsible.”

The “Alloy U Awards” was expanded this year, giving students the opportunity to voice their opinions across the brand categories leading their purchases: Food and Beverage, Automotive, Personal Care, Retail, and Shoes/Apparel.

The top choices for “Top Socially Responsible” Brands:

  • Food/beverage: Yoplait
  • Automotive: Toyota
  • Personal care: Burt’s Bees
  • Retail: Target
  • Shoes & apparel: Nike

Yoplait, Burt’s Bees, Nike and Target have each received Top 10 recognition overall in past rankings.

“Perception of social responsibility remains critical to garnering college students’ brand loyalty. In current collegiate environment it is very cool to be ‘good.’ Brands who [sic] enable college students to reflect their own social responsibility by association have an advantage,” said Samantha Skey, EVP, Alloy Media + Marketing.


College students are perpetually connected, and the 2008 data reveals a distinct evolution across students’ media usage; in parallel, the market is meeting their demands with fusing technologies allowing for enhanced mobility, entertainment, and function.

  • Mobility appears to be mandatory, with 7 in 10 students now owning a laptop (a 67% increase in three years), with desktop ownership dropping 34% over the last three years.


  • Ownership of MP3 players has seen striking increases, with 67% of students now owning one and using it for more than just music.
  • 23% are now watching downloadable videos on the “small” screen.
  • The cell phone, once a utility for getting in touch with friends and family, is now favored by a growing number of students who use it as their all-in-one device for communication, entertainment and web access.

With improved technologies and growing options, major shifts in TV viewing are quickly revealing students’ new preferences. For the first time, the study finds college viewers making an appointment on their digital devices to catch up on their favorite TV shows.

  • Fully 62% of students report watching TV online.
  • While 26% are choosing to visit the various major networks websites, 34% are opting for You Tube, with others utilizing emerging platforms such as Veoh, Hulu, and Joost.

“The digital revolution on campus shows no signs of slowing. Students have come to expect 24/7 connectedness and mobility, now flexibility and ease of function to socialize, communicate and be entertained, is what they’re demanding,” Skey said.

“With college students quickly and easily adopting new technologies enabling a constant desire to engage and connect, the study gives marketers more than just a glimpse into students’ media behaviors, but also an essential view into finding their way in.”

Decision Influencers

College students are aware of their influence, whether it’s their feelings on who has the most ability to change the world (36% state only they have the power!) and who will listen to them, with 64% saying word-of-mouth is a key driver over their purchasing decisions.

Movies and electronics remain top areas of interest, and students generally turn to their peers for advice; almost half (48%) of male students turn to friends for word on the hottest videogames.

Students also learn about brands and products through advertising – 62% said so.

They have more money, but they remain a thrifty bunch: Providing samples consistently shows strong acceptance by students, with 97% saying they are least likely to ignore or avoid these type of ads and a record 60% stating they find this type of advertising most useful to making purchasing decisions.

Social responsibility makes an impact here as well, with 93% saying they are less likely to ignore an ad that promotes a brands partnership with a cause.

Online Politics

As the nation heads toward an important election, the survey finds students more likely than ever to wield their votes, with a vast majority (9 in 10) planning to cast their presidential vote in November. A plurality (43%) state that they’re “Pro-Obama.”

The study documented Obama’s apparent rise in popularity with college students and, measurably, the wide use of the web as preferred platform to gather information about the presidential candidates.

Candidates’ presence on social networking sites became just as vital as a campus town hall and with 88% of students (up from 73% just last year) reporting engagement with social media, including visiting social networking websites, video websites like YouTube, and blogs.

Of these social media users classified as most active, an influential 85% claim to be “promoters,” passing along information with peers.

For students who have created a social networking profile – a significant 81% – popular activities reported include posting web applications, with 39% doing so, and almost one-third posting videos.

1 in 5 use their profile to show their support for the causes they believe in.

About the study: The 2008 Alloy College Explorer study was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of Alloy Media + Marketing between April 1 and April 17, 2008, among 1,554 US 18-30-year-old college students (2-year, 4-year and graduate students). Results were weighted as needed for age, sex, race/ethnicity, region and school status (full-time, part-time, 4-yr., 2-yr.). Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.

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