When Laura Wattenberg dropped her daughter off at college late last month, she got distracted. The freshman residence halls displayed “a hand-painted banner welcoming new students by name,” Wattenberg recalls. All she wanted to do was “stop and take notes on the name lists,” she told me in an email.
Wattenberg is the self-titled Baby Name Wizard, best known for her popular baby-name guidebooks and her blog, where she analyzes naming trends. She couldn’t resist scanning the huge cloth banners, and noticed patterns in “the evocative collection” of names. “The names themselves were such a snapshot of the place and the moment,” Wattenberg says, “the slice of a generation that the incoming class” represents.
The most popular names among incoming freshmen are, for the most part, time capsules of the era in which those students were born, and variations among universities can reveal the particularities of each school, including the ethnic, socioeconomic, religious, and geographic subcultures those schools serve.
Few colleges proactively publish such data, and the handful that do tend to relegate the statistics to, as MIT put it, the “just for fun” section of profiles of new classes of freshmen. But according to a spokesman for the Common App, which is used by hundreds of colleges and universities, the most popular name among male applicants for the 2018–19 application season was Matthew, followed by Michael and Nicholas; for females, the top names were Emily, Sarah, and Emma. The Common App’s list generally corresponds with the baby-name rankings in the United States 18 years ago. Emily was the most common name for baby girls born in 2001, and Matthew was the third-most-common name for boys.
Yet few colleges’ individual freshman-name rankings this year align perfectly with the popular baby names of 2001. Considering the small sample size of any given freshman class—which at many schools is just a few hundred students—there’s bound to be a good amount of random variation. Still, statistics from individual schools can serve as a window into each institution’s idiosyncrasies.*
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New Orleans’s Tulane University resemble each other in many ways. Both are elite schools that each year admit a tiny fraction of applicants and draw students from all over the country and the world. Yet MIT’s freshmen tend toward conservative names that had fallen out of favor by the early Aughts, such as Anna and Kevin. Their peers at Tulane are more likely to have names that were trendy when they were born, such as William and Olivia.
Such distinctions point to the ways in which a college’s most popular names can correlate with the characteristics of its student body. The top names for MIT’s class of 2023 likely reflect the university’s demographic breakdown. Four in 10 freshmen at the school identify as Asian American (another four in 10 as white); 16 percent of its students overall will be the first in their families to get a four-year degree. Meanwhile, many immigrant groups have tended, at least historically, to adopt “American-sounding” (read: traditionally white) names.
At Tulane, Julia is the top name for its freshman women this year—even though it wasn’t that trendy in Louisiana, where the school is located, in 2001. Notably, Julia was all the rage at that time in Connecticut, where it was the second-most-popular girl name. This aberration, Wattenberg suggests, could be “shorthand for the fact that among 2001 babies, the name skewed affluent, educated, and white.”
Students’ names can also reveal a school’s character: My analysis of freshman-name data from close to 30 colleges and universities across the country shows that religious schools’ most-popular lists often include biblical or religious names that were otherwise relatively unpopular in 2001, such as Grace and Stephen.
When choosing a name for their baby, parents these days tend to err on the side of standing out; that means the most popular baby names of yore were far more dominant at the time than the most popular ones are now. Back when Wattenberg attended Connecticut’s Wesleyan College in the 1980s and early ’90s, she says, a campus group held an annual “Jen and Dave” party—its admission exclusive to Jens and Daves. The names were so popular during that era that the parties were always a bona fide “bash,” Wattenberg recalls.
These days a “Jen and Dave” party would almost certainly be a pathetic, if not altogether impossible, affair. At California’s Soka University, for example, a single name appears more than once across the Buddhist liberal-arts school’s roughly 110 freshmen, close to half of whom are from outside the U.S.—there are two Harukas. The growing baby-name variation also makes any given college’s most-popular list more sensitive to demographic and geographic differences. Take the name Logan: The 10th-most-popular boy name in the country last year, it was especially trendy in rural areas, according to Wattenberg. A couple of decades from now, the number of Logans at a college could signal the extent to which the college’s students come from rural communities.
Now that it’s becoming more conventional for American parents to choose unconventional names, chances are colleges’ individual freshman-name lists will veer further from the national rankings. “With greater name diversity,” Wattenberg says, “we’re seeing greater stratification.”
* This article has been updated to reflect that Soka University is a co-ed school.
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