Does College Seem Better Looking Back?

Graduation Season

In May, students from across the country graduated from college. My Facebook feed was overwhelmed with cap and gown selfies, thank-you posts to parents, and lengthy reflections of people’s time at school. 


 I was brought back to my time in college – the friendships, the partying, and occasionally, the studying. 

College is a magical time where you have no stress, no responsibilities, and no rules. The most difficult decision made on a daily basis is whether to order pizza or Chinese for dinner. 

Or is it? 

While college seems like 4-year vacation now, I wasn’t sure if it actually felt that way when I was enrolled. I didn’t find college very fun when I was staying up until 2 AM cramming Black-Scholes formulas into my head. Nor did I feel particularly stress-free when I was desperately trying to find a summer internship. 

I’ve always assumed that college was the best time in my life, but as I began reflecting on my college experience, I was less sure. I began wondering how much of my rose-tinted college recollections was because college was actually that great and how much was due to nostalgia-induced memories. 

To resolve my doubts, I decided to conduct a survey.

Yay, analysis.

I recruited 317 people who were either students or graduates of 4-year undergrad programs.

Aside from the typical demographic questions (gender, age, etc.), I asked people when/if they graduated, and what degree they received or were pursuing (Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, etc.).

I also asked people to compare their college experiences to the typical college experience on five dimensions: enjoyment, stress, usefulness, and worthwhileness. For each metric, each person gave a rating on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being significantly above average, 1 being significantly below average, and 5 being the average college experience. This allowed me to compare dimensions against each other and provided everyone the same benchmark, regardless of when they graduated.

Of the 317 people I surveyed, 137 were women, 179 were men, and 1 person was “Other”. Of these responses, 107 were current students (currently enrolled in a 4-year undergraduate program or graduated within the last 6 months) and 210 were college grads.

Using a combination of Python, Tableau and good old-fashioned Excel, I analyzed the responses. Here are the findings:


People think they are special snowflakes and had above average college experiences.

The average ratings for all five dimensions was higher than 5, the benchmark college experience.  People tended to think their college experience was above average which is unsurprising given that people generally feel like they are above average in life.
The “Difficulty” metric was the closest to the benchmark (average rating: 5.70) while everyone felt their college experience was extra “Worthwhile” (average rating: 6.47).

College appears less difficult, stressful, and useful once you graduate.

Three metrics were statistically different between college students and grads: “Difficulty,” “Stress,” and “Usefulness”. College students had average ratings that were not only above the benchmark, but also above those of grads.

In other words, if you are in college, you tend to think your experience is more difficult, stressful, and useful than someone who has graduated. 


Hypothesis 1: College has become harder.

One possible explanation is that the college experience has actually changed over time. Current students think that college is more difficult, stressful, and useful because college is more difficult, stressful, and useful. 

This effect was controlled for in the survey because everyone gave ratings relative to the “typical college experience”. If college has gotten more challenging over time, people’s definition of a “typical college experience” would have adapted as well. So while this effect is possible, it would not have caused the ratings difference between students and grads.


Hypothesis 2: Changing College Memories

Another possible explanation is that people’s memories about college change. Our memories are about as reliable as a Senior attending a 9AM class. Studies have been shown that our memories change every time we recall an event so perhaps stressful memories, such as that Biology final junior year, have softened over time and altered our perceptions about our college experience.

This hypothesis is difficult to perfectly test, but if changing memories have significantly affected the ratings of college grads, you might expect different ratings depending on when they graduated.

I separated college grads into two groups – very recent graduates (graduated 5 or less years ago) and older graduates (graduated 10 or more years ago). I then compared their ratings.

As it turns out, none of the five metrics were statistically different. So although our memories are being distorted, it’s not the primary driver behind the ratings difference.


Hypothesis 3: Changing Perspectives

The third possibility is that people’s perspective about college change after graduation. It’s not the college memories that morph, but how we judge those memories.

Most college students have little to no experience working a full-time job, paying bills, or raising a family. Because of this, every project, assignment, and exam during college seems like a daunting task.

Upon graduation, grads realize college is easy compared to “real life”. As a result, college grads tend to view college as less stressful, difficult, and useful because their standards have been raised for what those dimensions mean. 

One indicator supporting this hypothesis is that people who graduated within the last three years gave college a significantly lower “Difficulty” rating than current students (6.18 vs. 4.95). Three years is not enough time for the college experience to dramatically change and it is unlikely that peoples’ memories would have been significantly distorted either. This suggests that a few years out in the real world has affected people’s definition of what “Difficult” really means. 


College was as enjoyable as you remember it, and also worth that annual $40,000 price tag.

College students and college grads had two ratings that were similar – enjoyableness and worthwhileness. How much we think we enjoyed college is fairly close to how much we actually enjoyed college. Asher Roth famously said “I Love College” and apparently, you never forget it. 

Although usefulness went down once people graduated, worthwhileness did not. In fact, “Worthwhile” had the highest scores relative to the other metrics for both students and grads. Apparently, whether you will use what you learned in Shakespearian Philosophy 101 doesn’t affect whether you think college is worthwhile. 

Different Ratings for Different Folks

Comparing the ratings of men to women, women found college significantly more stressful than men while “Difficulty” was not statistically different. So schoolwork doesn’t seem to be the only source of stress in college - surprising no one who has ever attended freshman orientation.


I also compared different college majors. Most people were either pursuing a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science, so I focused on those two degrees. Both degrees thought college was equally worthwhile but Bachelor of Arts had way more fun: higher enjoyment, lower difficulty, and lower stress. This also surprises no one who has ever attended an engineering class and watched a foreign language being developed on the blackboard.


I need a beer.

So some aspects of college improve after graduation while other aspects stay the same. One thing is certain, enjoy college while you can. There’s a reason so many movies are about college, and almost no movies are about holding down a job and earning a steady paycheck.

There are opportunities to build off this survey by digging into each of the dimensions: what makes college enjoyable? What makes college difficult? What is the appropriate time to wait before friending someone on Facebook after meeting them at a frat party?

But for now, I think I need a Natty Light and nap.

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