Spotlight Center on HIV Prevention Today

Changes in College Students' Knowledge About AIDS

November 30, 2001

This article is part of The Body PRO's archive. Because it contains information that may no longer be accurate, this article should only be considered a historical document.

A study published in the November issue of AIDS Education and Prevention examines patterns in college students’ knowledge and attitudes over time about AIDS and people with AIDS.

Participants were students enrolled in Introductory Psychology at a mid-sized southeastern university over a 14-year period between 1986 and 2000.

Participants anonymously completed an AIDS Attitude Scale (AAS) consisting of "tolerant" and "intolerant" items such as: "I would like to feel at ease around people with AIDS" or "I would not allow my children to play with the children of people with AIDS." Students were asked to rate their degree of agreement from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

Additional questions were used to rate the participants’ knowledge about HIV, perceived susceptibility to HIV, concerns about infection through casual contact, and opinions about the effectiveness of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV. Researchers chose these variables because they reflect components of decision-making models used to conceptualize HIV-prevention efforts.

Researchers also collected demographic data, including participants’ age, gender, race/ethnicity, year in school, and sexual orientation. Data was only analyzed from students who identified exclusively as heterosexual.



  • Over the course of 15 years, there were 1,571 participants; 571 were male and 1,000 were female.
  • 89% of the participants were freshmen or sophmores.
  • The average age of participants was 19.
  • 90% of participants were Caucasian, 6% were African American, and 4% were another race/ethnicity.

Data Analysis

Attitudes/Comfort Level

  • Females typically scored higher on the AIDS Attitude Scale (AAS), indicating more tolerant attitudes toward people with AIDS.
  • Tolerance toward people with AIDS and HIV infection generally increased over time.
  • Higher comfort ratings for being close to people with HIV/AIDS correlated with higher tolerance scores on the AAS.
  • Since 1991, the comfort rating for being close to a classmate or roommate with HIV or AIDS generally increased. Ratings indicate, however, that students feel less comfortable being close to a roommate than to a classmate.
  • There was a significant increase in the percentage of students who reported personally knowing someone with HIV infection.

Perceived Risk/Vulnerability

  • Perceived susceptibility to HIV appears to have decreased over time.
  • Students reported more vulnerability to HIV immediately after Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV-positive and again in the fall of 1995.
  • Females were consistently less fearful of infection through casual contact than males.

Condom Effectiveness

  • Perceptions regarding the effectiveness of condoms for preventing the spread of HIV infection have been mixed over time.
  • Condoms were rated more effective in 1990 and 1991 than they were either in 1987, 1988, or 2000.
  • Males reported more confidence in the effectiveness of condoms in reducing the spread of HIV than females.

The data suggest that as AIDS has become more prevalent in the United States, perceived knowledge about it has increased and college students’ attitudes about it and people with HIV/AIDS have become more tolerant.

The authors state that one explanation for this finding is that when individuals feel more confident about their HIV knowledge they are less likely to fear infection through casual contact and are more tolerant of people with HIV/AIDS.

The authors suggest that the decreasing concerns of HIV infection from casual contact may relate to increases in personal contact with an HIV-positive individual and societal events such as Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV-positive.

Interestingly, the data suggest little relation between students’ perceived susceptibility to HIV/AIDS and attitudes about people with AIDS. The authors suggest that while this might seem disheartening to prevention efforts, a correlation between high tolerance toward people with AIDS and perceived invulnerability would imply that students empathize with people with AIDS only if they feel that HIV/AIDS is something that cannot happen to them. The lack of a correlation, therefore, may actually indicate that students are empathetic toward people with AIDS regardless of their own perceived susceptibility to the disease.

The authors go on to note that while students in general are expressing more tolerant attitudes toward AIDS and people with AIDS today compared with students a decade ago, there is still a large difference in the perception of males and females. This indicates that HIV-prevention and intervention programs must focus on the particular concerns of males and females.

The authors conclude by saying that analyzing changes in attitudes over time is a useful approach that has practical applications. Such comparisons can both describe trends and evaluate the effectiveness of education programs. By focusing on both the similarities and differences in attitudes over time, health professionals will be able to adapt programs to students’ current needs and concerns.

For more information: K. E. Bruce and L. J. Walker, "College Students’ Attitudes About AIDS: 1986 to 2000," AIDS Education and Prevention, vol. 13, no. 5, pp. 428-37.

This article was provided by Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. It is a part of the publication SHOP Talk: School Health Opportunities and Progress Bulletin.


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