By Published on .

Picture the typical college student. If you conjure up someone in his or her late teens, living in a dorm and calling home for money at every opportunity, you may be in for a surprise. Truth is, 39 percent of all college students are age 25 or older, 75 percent live off campus and 80 percent have paying jobs, according to a recent survey. Just 20 percent say they get money from their parents on a regular basis. Considering that college students wield $200 billion in buying power each year, it may be time to set aside any preconceived notions about these coeds and start thinking of them as serious consumers.

The latest findings from online market research firm Harris Interactive's “360 College Explorer Outlook Study� were released late July and offer a glimpse into the daily activities and spending habits of college students, focusing on 18- to 30-year-olds. The survey is fielded online twice a year, in the fall and spring semesters, with a nationally representative sample of Harris Interactive panel respondents. The results are weighted to reflect the entire U.S. college student population. The statistics discussed in this article come from the spring 2002 wave, conducted last April 3 to 15 among 2,930 American college students as well as an additional 703 young people ages 18 to 24 who are not in college. The study compares responses by the students' status: full-time or part-time, commuter or resident, public school or private, and by whether they are working toward a 2-year degree, a 4-year degree or a graduate degree. In addition, the survey compares students by basic demographics and by their year in school.

Demographically, men have the advantage on college campuses: Overall, there are 6.6 million male students, compared with 8.7 million female students. Among 18- to 30-year-old students, 6.9 million are working toward a 4-year degree and 3.8 million toward a 2-year degree; 8 million are full-time students and 3.3 million are part-timers.

This may be a shock to some parents, but the average college student spends a very small percentage of his or her time in class or hitting the books, according to the Harris study. Students spend 1.7 hours in class per day, on average, and another 1.6 hours studying. The rest of the day — when they're not working (2.6 hours) or sleeping (6.8 hours) — is up for grabs. Essentially, that leaves 11.3 hours for students to party (or do whatever else college students do).

So what do they do? More than anything, they surf the Net. Fully 99 percent of college students go online at least a few times per week; 90 percent do so daily. Fifty-two percent have a broadband connection. But this infatuation with the Internet seems to have more to do with age than education status: 99 percent of students not in college also say they spend that much time online. College students, however, do spend less time with traditional media than do students not in college. For instance, while 91 percent of non-college students say they watch TV at least a few times per week, 86 percent of college students say the same. Similarly, a smaller share of college students than non-college students listens to the radio (80 percent versus 88 percent), reads a newspaper (44 percent versus 45 percent) or reads a magazine (36 percent versus 49 percent). Word-of-mouth, therefore, may be the best channel for reaching the college crowd: 60 percent of all college students — and 65 percent of full-timers — say they hang out with friends at least a few times a week, compared with 48 percent of non-college students.

And they certainly find time to shop. Although the Harris Interactive survey doesn't specifically ask how much time college students spend at the mall, researchers do offer a glimpse into their wallets. The average college student has about $287 to spend on discretionary items per month, or about $3,444 per year. Overall, students spend more than $11 billion a year on snacks and beverages, $4 billion on personal care products and $3 billion on CDs and tapes.

But while total spending — including non-discretionary spending (i.e., tuition, rent, books) — is highest among full-time students and 4-year degree candidates, discretionary spending is highest among part-timers ($4,872) and 2-year degree candidates ($3,960), because they are more likely to be working during the school year. Also, the older the student, the more money he or she has. Students ages 18 to 19 have about $182 per month in discretionary funds, compared with $471 per month for the 25- to 30-year-old student group.

For more information about the survey, visit


Part-time college students have more money to spend per month ($406) than do their full-time counterparts ($234).

TOTAL $287
Male $296
Female $279
2-year degree $330
4-year degree $248
Advanced degree $392
Full-time $234
Part-time $406
Live on campus $160
Live with parents $254
Live elsewhere $381
Freshman $184
Sophomore $246
Junior $262
Senior $261
*Ages 18 to 30 Source: Harris Interactive


More than half (52 percent) of 18- to 30-year-old college students say they spend at least a few times per week exercising, compared with 44 percent of those not in college.


Go on the Internet 99% 99% 99% 98% 99% 99% 99%
Listen to music they select 87% 90% 86% 85% 89% 84% 89%
Watch TV 86% 82% 88% 84% 86% 90% 91%
Talk on the phone 85% 80% 90% 91% 84% 87% 90%
Listen to radio 81% 75% 86% 92% 76% 87% 88%
Hang out with friends 60% 63% 58% 52% 66% 49% 48%
Exercise 52% 52% 52% 54% 50% 55% 44%
Read newspaper (not campus-related) 44% 47% 40% 39% 41% 49% 45%
Read a magazine (not campus-related) 36% 40% 34% 39% 34% 40% 49%
Watch videos/DVDs 36% 40% 34% 44% 35% 28% 39%
Read a book (not for school) 34% 32% 35% 33% 32% 37% 51%
Read campus newspaper/magazine 25% 29% 22% 5% 34% 26% n/a
Attend a religious service 14% 15% 14% 11% 16% 14% 9%
Go on a date 14% 15% 15% 15% 15% 10% 12%
Go to parties 6% 7% 6% 3% 8% 5% 5%
Do volunteer work 9% 10% 9% 8% 11% 5% 5%
Source: Harris Interactive
Most Popular
In this article: