Most college students have received sympathy this year for our strange, disrupted COVID-19-induced experiences. Many parents and friends look at us with pity and say, “It’s a shame; college should be the best four years of your life.” This seems to be a common belief — that college is a carefree time, filled with constant fun, laughter and freedom to spend joyful moments with our friends.
This common perception about college may be harmful for two reasons. First, the logical implication of the view that “it doesn’t get any better than college” is that for the majority of bright-eyed young adults, their lives go downhill after college — a dispiriting thought at best. Second, the idea that college years for most people should be a four-year-long fun-fest may keep many students from reaching out for help should they encounter problems. If college is supposed to be such a great time in life, many students may have difficulty understanding why that has not been their experience.
Given these potential risks, why do so many people insist on promoting this idea that the college years are the pinnacle of our lives? It turns out that the answer has more to do with what happens before college, rather than what is likely to happen to us after college.
“Childhood and adolescence come with a lot of constraints,” said Dr. Vanessa Diaz, a developmental psychology professor at Virginia Tech. “When people say that ‘(college is) the best four years of your life,’ they probably mean that they will be the most free four years of your life.”
Students find that with more freedom, they can investigate new passions, and with those passions comes a stronger sense of identity. Because of this, college students often experience a surge in self-esteem.
“Your self-esteem is high in childhood — really, really high,” Diaz said. “(Kids) are unrealistically optimistic about themselves. Then in adolescence, you see a very big dip.”
In other words, if someone tells a high school graduate that college “will be the best four years of your life,” they actually mean that your college experience is likely to be superior to the last several years of your adolescence. Even if a college student graduates penniless and directionless, there’s a good chance that they will feel more confident in who they are than they did four years prior — and this in itself is an accomplishment, but shouldn’t cause us to think that our lives have peaked during our college years.
Another reason why the typical college experience may be superior to our high school years is that students’ relationships with their parents often improve during this time. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Diaz said. “And this is one of those times where this cliche is actually true.”
When their children are off to college, parents may let go of habits that kept their children at arm’s length. Strict parents who prioritized safety and rule-following at the expense of a trusting, close bond with their children can no longer monitor them when they go off to college. This relaxes the parent-child relationship and makes room for positivity and respect. Moreover, college students have the freedom to choose how and when to talk with their parents, which often closes the gap in communication instead of widening it.
These psychological needs help explain why so many people tout college as the best four years of our lives: it gives students freedom, it increases students’ sense of identity and self-esteem, and it improves their relationships with their parents. Still, while we know that college can improve young lives in many ways, the typical college experience also presents unique and sometimes devastating challenges.
“Living up until the point that you go to college, your parents have provided everything, including your social environment,” Diaz said. In college, students become fully responsible for all our basic needs, including making friends. In childhood, making friends comes naturally to most children, but college students may suddenly find that it’s not so easy to do.
During emerging adulthood, we become more self-aware, which can hinder us from diving into relationships as quickly as we did as children. Insecurity and self-doubt may cause us to worry that our desire for friendship may not be reciprocated. Also, we can’t help but compare our new college friends to our old friends from home. If you’re unable to make plans with college friends during your free time, and sitting alone in your room, the idea that you’re wasting the “best four years of your life” can add heartbreak to the loneliness.
When graduates talk about their college experience, especially to incoming freshmen, they tend to gloss over the bad parts. This is understandable: they presumably believe that it’s better to encourage incoming student excitement rather than dread about the years to come. But there are risks associated with glossing over the not-so-great aspects of college life.
“This approach is what some people call ‘toxic positivity,’” Diaz said. Diaz explained that toxic positivity helps perpetuate the idea that “when (students) struggle, they are alone.” If we fail to provide incoming freshmen with a comprehensive idea of what college can be, both good and bad, they can feel as if they’re the only struggling student drowning in a sea of happy and thriving people.
In addition to the social challenges, most students fail to accurately anticipate just how hard college academics will be. Lifelong straight-A students might fail their first college exam or class and question their capacity to succeed, but these setbacks are incredibly common and rarely as dire as they may seem at the time. Also, there are resources at Virginia Tech that can ensure future classroom success and help remind students that they are not alone in their struggles.
Diaz regularly hears from student panels at Virginia Tech; this provides insight into what students have found to be the most valuable resources the school offers.
For example, her students raved about the Writing Center — a free service which provides students with feedback on essays and other graded writings. Many students expressed regret for failing to take advantage of this service earlier in their college careers. They also found Hokie Wellness services to be helpful. Mostly student-run, Hokie Wellness hosts workshops on sleep, nutrition and time management tools and spearheads peer-mentoring programs, where incoming students are paired with upperclassmen trained in mentorship. Diaz said that the students she spoke with on her panel considered this program to be “one of the most helpful things they’ve done.”
When considering that the carefree college years may not be so carefree after all, it bears mentioning that for many incoming students, the college experience can be particularly challenging. “For minority students, it’s important to emphasize that all of this is harder,” Diaz said. “Sexual, racial and ethnic minorities, first generation and non-traditional students — the transition (to college) is harder for them.” Diaz said that because of this, it is especially important that these students be introduced to “like-minded students who share their experiences.” Students on Diaz’s panel found that the cultural centers at Virginia Tech help foster this type of community.
The difficulties that students may encounter during college years — deadlines, fatigue, depression, discrimination, poor eating and exercise habits — probably don’t differ that much from the difficulties we will face outside of college. The one critical difference is that the college experience has become so glamorized that when students fail a class or feel lonely or their mental health declines, they might resist seeking help because doing so would mean admitting that their experience has fallen short of what they were led to believe it would be.
Instead of saying, “College will be the best four years of your life,” Diaz suggested a more realistic replacement: “(College is) a time of possibility.” This philosophy can motivate incoming students without raising their expectations to unrealistic levels.
The reality is that college, like life, is what you make of it, and what happens after college ought to be just as fun, exciting, and, yes, challenging as the college years. College isn’t going to be your life’s peak and it shouldn’t be, but it will be special — as will so many other stages in your life. It’s time we stop imposing these unrealistic expectations on young people to have life-altering, out-of-this-world college experiences, and instead let them see for themselves what college has to offer.