The Biggest Difference Between College In the 90s and Today

I found my people in college, but I’m pretty sure everything has changed. Yale, New Paltz, University of Colorado, Syracuse, U Mass: The universities my family and I visited were vastly different, but alike in one way. 

The campuses were quiet. Students were plugged in to their phones.

One of our first college visits was to Yale last fall. During our tour of the school, one student carrying an instrument case stopped another and asked if she was going to rehearsal that night. That question stayed in my mind, and I wasn’t sure why. Then I realized she was the only student I heard speak, other than our guide, the entire day. 

Will my teens meet dear friends like I did in college? (Credit: Kim Brown)

When I started college my dorm had three TVs

When I was 17 my parents dropped me off at Dascomb Hall at Oberlin College, which had three TVs and nothing else in the way of entertainment. Since they didn’t pay the extra fee for a long-distance phone plan, the only way I could be in touch with them–or anyone I knew–was to write letters. 

 So, instead I talked to the people in my dorm, who became, and still are, my closest friends. When it was cold, which was almost always, we’d sit in each other’s rooms, or the common area for hours, talking about everything and nothing at all. On rare warm days, campus was full of frisbee games, Hacky Sack and students hanging out or studying on the lawn known as Wilder Bowl.  

How will my teens meet the kind of friends I met in college?

Last August in Syracuse, on one of the first days of the semester, my family and I toured the university for nearly an hour but didn’t see a single frisbee or Hacky Sack. And in Boulder, despite the sunny, mid 50s weather in February, we only saw two people talking outside, both roughly my age.

To be fair, I did graduate college in the 90s, and maybe a frisbee is no longer a prerequisite for a fulfilling college life. But then I read the column “The Best Years of My Life? Christ, I Hope Not” by Katie McDonald in The Bold, one of Boulder’s student publications. 

Before starting college, adults in her life had told Katie they met their closest friends or even spouses in large lecture halls or walking around campus. “Those are things that would never happen today–at least to me,” she wrote.

If someone were to approach me in a lecture hall for casual conversation, I would be so confused that I would slowly back away with arms in the air, as if thwarting a bear attack… And I would never speak to strangers on campus because in my personal opinion, if you are walking on campus without headphones at full volume—you are a psychopath.

Katie McDonald

How sad. 

Professor Joan Maya Mazelis, Associate Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, Camden, and an expert on social ties also noticed the change.

As a professor I often notice that students sit quietly in the classroom before class starts, staring at tiny screens instead of chatting with their neighbors.

Dr. Joan Maya Mazelis

It’s no wonder that 77 percent of college students report feeling lonely, according to a 2023 study by the Mental Health Foundation, despite being surrounded by people their own age. 

“My family members who graduated from the University of Georgia in the past can’t believe my son and nephew don’t love it the way they and their friend groups did,” said Julie Giles, a Georgia mom. “I think it has to do with cell phones. They walk around campus with their faces in their phones.”

Walking around with your head in your phone was not an option in the 90’s

Thankfully, that wasn’t an option when I was in school. I met one of my best friends during freshman orientation while waiting in line for a mailbox assignment. A grounds worker nearby was driving a tractor across Wilder Bowl. Being from New York City, I was enjoying the scene when a girl standing in front of me said, “You know, I hate getting stuck behind one of those in traffic. Especially when you’re late to school.” 

I didn’t know. I took the D train to high school, so I had to ask where she was from. “Kansas,” she said. Which was so connected to the Wizard of Oz in my mind, I wasn’t 100 percent certain it was a real place. When she introduced herself, I learned the name Jen had three syllables when pronounced with a Midwestern twang. 

Also, she graduated from a Catholic high school and didn’t have any Jewish friends  until we met.

I think about the moments that would not haver happened if I had a phone

For me, that day still exemplifies the point of going to a liberal arts school. [Over the years, I learned far more from her than any class.] Yet that moment, and so many other college memories, might never have happened if I had a phone.

“This doesn’t mean college students won’t make new friends on campus, but it might mean they have to try a little harder,” Mazelis said, “and it might mean that fewer friendships take root in casual conversations in shared spaces.”


Will my daughter’s college relationships be as strong as mine were?

For example, my daughter recently gave me the death glare when I introduced myself to the father and son sitting next to us at a Syracuse event. I was eventually forgiven for thinking that the point of an admitted-student reception was to talk to other admitted students. But just barely. 

“You’ll see each other on campus soon and laugh about how your mother embarrassed you. Then you’ll become friends.”

“That’s not the way it happens,” she said.

I guess not. Which makes me wonder if her relationships and experiences will be as strong as the ones I had before cell phones. 

Then again, are anyone’s?   

More Great Reading:  

Six Things Teens Can (And Should) Do Besides Looking at Their Phones

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