Campus Life Back in Session -- College Students Arrive Confident, Smart-er and With Climbing Consumer Spending Power

Election Year Shows a Significantly Independent Class With High Hopes for Four More Years

NEW YORK, Sept. 12, 2012 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Fall is in the air, bringing more than 21 million students back to college campuses ready to wield their immense social, political and consumer clout. For the 12th consecutive year, re:fuel, a leading marketing firm, today released findings from its annual College Explorer survey, powered by Crux Research. The largest study of its kind, the 2012 edition offers a comprehensive view of current campus life from spending habits, tech usage and adoption, to student perspectives on the upcoming presidential race - finding this year's matriculating class resolute in their confidence to make positive change in the world and outpacing their predecessors when it comes to digital connectivity.

Consumer confidence among this set shows solid improvement this year as overall discretionary spending soars 40% over last year's figure. With apparel and personal care products spend both up more than 100% since last year, it appears looking good and feeling good is boosting the campus economy.


The current college student body wields a massive $405 billion in total spending, a 5% increase over adjusted 2011 spending. This growth was fueled not only by growth in enrollment, but also by a sharp spike in discretionary spending from $86 billion last year up 40% to $120 billion this year. Meanwhile, after a significant jump to $299 billion last year, non-discretionary spending (on items such as tuition, room & board and books & supplies) dropped back to 2010 levels at $285 billion.

Students have reined in school spending by seeking out more scholarships and financial aid that does not require repayment. Thirty percent of students are receiving this type of assistance compared to 26% ten years ago. In the same period, the amount of money contributed directly by students or their families has decreased from 52% to 45%. And while 74% of students expect to graduate with loan debt (up from 55% ten years ago) and salary expectations pale in comparison to that of their peers in our 2002 study, a full 64% of students consider college to be a worthwhile investment overall.

Meanwhile, following three years of stagnant discretionary spending, students have opened their wallets to fuel growth in every discretionary category measured in this year's College Explorer. In fact, spending more than doubled in several key categories, including apparel (up 126%), technology (up 227%) personal care products (up 105%) and cosmetics (up 280%).

It's no secret that college students love to eat. This fact is, once again, born out in the spending data with student food expenditures topping the list of all discretionary outlays for the 12th year. In 2012, students spent more than $44 billion dollars on total food expenses including $20.7 billion in grocery stores, $9.6 billion on food at convenience stores and $13.7 billion spent while dining out.


The college years provide students with a tremendous amount of free time. An average student's day consists of roughly 2 hours in class, 1.5 hours studying, 2 hours working a paid job and (after allotting time for sleeping, eating, grooming, working out and commuting) an astonishing 8.5 hours of free time. Much of their time, both during the week (10.5 hours per day) and on weekends (7.1 hours per day), is spent within the communal campus environment where, in addition to classrooms and lecture halls, students frequent a number of venues including libraries, bookstores, on-campus convenience stores and fitness centers.

"College students – even nontraditional, older students and those attending two-year schools – spend a tremendous amount of time on their college campus," commented Tammy Nelson, VP Marketing & Research at re:fuel. "It's the primary hub, not only for academic activities, but also for social and recreational pursuits, making it an ideal environment for marketers looking to foster brand connections with young adult consumers making many brand decisions for the first time."

The pursuit of food, among other things, consistently draws students to off-campus locales as well. Nearly all (92%) students visit off campus grocery stores, 88% visit quick-service restaurants and 83% visit sit-down restaurants in a typical month.


Today's college students own an array of technology devices, but three – laptops, smart phones and tablets – with their corresponding multi-functional portability, drive students' daily lives.

Making the grade on campus is clearly the all-in-one accessory – the smart phone. The 2012 College Explorer shows smart phone ownership (55%) among students surpassing feature phone ownership (43%) for the first time. In fact, ownership of smart phones and tablets (21%) seems to be pushing a downward ownership trend in more single-function devices such as MP3 players and digital cameras.

While students own 6.4 tech devices total (on par with 2011), the amount of time spent with technology has jumped a full three hours to 14.4 total tech hours per day. The multi-function app environment on today's smart phones has driven phone time alone up one full hour per day. Among the tech trifecta, roughly 7.2 key activities (such as accessing the internet, playing games, listening to music, watching videos, etc.) are accomplished on laptops, 5.2 activities on smart phones and 5.1 on tablets.

"The increase of smart phone ownership isn't just changing talking and texting behavior," noted John Geraci, President of Crux Research. "It's affecting overall time spent with technology, influencing computer use and impacting ownership rates of less productive devices."

Smart phone dominance shows no sign of relenting as it is also the most-wanted device for students. Thirty-two percent of students expect to buy one in the coming year.


Savvy students are using technology to interact with family, friends, and even brands, on their terms.

Once again, this generation of students proves that mom and dad are incredibly important sounding boards. Students are communicating with mom and dad a resounding 27.7 times per week employing a number of technologies to do so, including 8.1 times via text, 5.5 on the phone, 4.7 times in person and 4.4 times on social networks.

Among social networks, Facebook continues to reign supreme with 81% of students stating they regularly use the site. Students spend about an hour per day on Facebook with 16% of that time, or about 10 minutes per day, devoted to brand interaction. And while 41% of students have stated they've purchased a brand they've "liked" on Facebook, students have a notoriously low tolerance for intrusiveness and irrelevance. A full 39% of students have un-liked a brand and 34% have hidden a brand from their newsfeed. The top reasons are "the brand posted too often" and "the brand's posts were no longer relevant to me."


Group buying services, such as Groupon and Google Offers, continue to connect students and brands online. The percentage of students subscribing to such a service rose from 41% last year to 45% this year, and those subscribers are using the services far more frequently creating a tremendous spike in estimated monthly transactions from 10.5 million per month in 2011 to 37.6 million in 2012.

Meanwhile, offline brand interaction, especially events and promotions bear strong results on campus. Nearly half (47%) of co-eds have received a free product sample, and 65% of them went on to purchase the brand. More than a third (34%) have attended a brand-sponsored event on campus; 64% went on to purchase the brand.


With 44% of students considering themselves Democrats (versus 18% who identify as Republican), it's no surprise that given a choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, 73% of college students report they would vote for Obama. Mitt Romney's campaign trail may want to head closer to the quad with just 27% stating support at the time of survey.

Seventy-eight percent of students were registered to vote as of this past spring, and 90% of those registered say they are likely to vote in November. Fueling their desire to head to the polls are key issues such as the economy (37%), education (15%), health care (11%) and social issues (11%).

Based on their political engagement, belief that their education will bear long-term rewards and their faith in their own abilities, it's no surprise that when asked "who do you think has the greatest ability to make positive changes in the world?" more than a third (35%) answered "People my age."

Nelson adds, "College students are the eternal optimists, as they should be. For students, the future, and seemingly the world, is at their feet. Students are focused on broadening their horizons and making decisions with lifelong ramifications. By delivering pertinent and relevant content, across multiple platforms, brands can begin a relationship with students during what many will consider to be the best years of their lives."


The 2012 re:fuel College Explorer, fielded by Crux Research online in March and April 2012, gathered the opinions of 1,528 college students between the ages of 18-34 (current college students who are not pursuing college exclusively online).

The sample is drawn primarily from a leading online panel which includes millions of cooperative respondents. Potential respondents are drawn at random within targeted age and gender quotas from the panel. Respondents included 1,304 full-time/224 part-time students; 284 2-year students/912 4-year students/334 working towards a graduate degree; 1,149 college students aged 18-24 and 379 college students aged 25-34.

Data points in the report, unless otherwise noted, are representative of U.S. college students ages 18-34. With probability samples of this size, one can say with 95% certainty that the overall results have a sampling error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points of what they would be if the entire U.S. college student population had been polled. This online sample is not a probability sample.

Quota targets are set using information from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). NCES populations for types of students (full-time/part-time, 2-year/4-year, undergraduate/graduate), as well as demographic information from the U.S. census, are used as weighting targets.


re:fuel is a leading marketing firm connecting a wide range of brands with niche consumer segments through scalable and impactful media and promotions solutions. With decades of expertise serving youth, multicultural, military and local audiences, re:fuel deploys brand campaigns that speak to these consumers in their world, throughout their day. re:fuel has locations nationwide, with headquarters in New York City, and offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, CA, Harrisburg, PA, and Cranbury, NJ.

The re:fuel logo is available at


Crux Research is a market research firm that partners with clients to develop winning products and services, build powerful brands, create engaging marketing strategies, enhance customer satisfaction and loyalty, improve products and services, and get the most out of their advertising.

Using quantitative and qualitative methods, Crux connects organizations with their customers in a wide range of industries, including education, consumer goods, media and advertising, technology, retail, business-to-business, and non-profit.

To learn more about Crux Research, visit


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