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College is often referred to as the “best four years of your life.” The glorification of college is extremely intense within American culture, causing many high school students to put exorbitant amounts of pressure on their college admissions process with the belief that the college they attend is the end-all-be-all of their happiness and success. As a current college student, this idea of the “best four years” can be confusing and depressing when college life turns out to be hard. While college brings many amazing opportunities and experiences, it also brings many new challenges socially, academically and mentally. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, college campuses across the United States saw an increase in anxiety, depression and suicides.

Mental health challenges on college campuses have only increased since the beginning of the pandemic. In a study performed by researchers at Texas A&M University, 71% of college students experienced increased stress and anxiety due to pandemic-related factors such as fear about the health of loved ones, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, limited socialization and academic stress. The University of Michigan’s Healthy Minds Study found that 47% of college students in the fall 2020 semester “screened positive for clinically significant symptoms of depression and/or anxiety,” making for the highest levels of depression and anxiety on college campuses ever. 

The pandemic has only intensified emotions over the promised amazing college experience failing to come true. A repeated conversation topic among my peers is what year (freshman, sophomore, etc.,) is missing out on the most. From juniors missing their study abroad opportunities to freshman struggling to meet new people without putting themselves at risk, every student is experiencing a substandard version of the experience they should be getting in a non-pandemic world. 

It is time to change the narrative that your college years should be the peak of an entire lifetime. In the United States, social equity, essentially how much your peers look up to you, peaks when one is in their early 20s. Blue Zones — such as Okinawa, Japan; Icaria, Greece and Sardinia, Italy — are the parts of the world with the highest life expectancy, have cultures in which social equity increases with age as people are seen to have more value with increased wisdom. Cultures that value life at older ages are shown to have populations that age happier, sometimes even living an average of four to six years longer. 

When families pay college tuition, they are really paying for the college experience, hence the 300% increase in students taking gap years due to the COVID-19 pandemic at University of Pennsylvania and similar increases at other universities. While the college experience is real and the high price tag may be worth it for some, many do not actually experience the four years of peak socialization and happiness that the “best four years of your life” label promises. Oftentimes, students may choose to attend the school that promises the most quintessential college experience instead of the most affordable one, even if both offer the same academic and professional opportunities. 

It is important to remember that colleges and universities are businesses that want to sell you the best college experience package they can. However, high school students should not feel pressure to choose the school that markets the best college experience; they may make a decision that sets them up for a less stable financial future with little actual difference in satisfaction of their college experience.

While it is important for society to value education and offer higher education opportunities, the association between college and the peak of one’s life must be severed for the well-being of students. Life continues past college with many more experiences and opportunities in store. It is normal to struggle in college and to not feel as though you are reaching your peak happiness. College offers great opportunities to meet new people and expand your world, but it is not everything.

Lizzy Peppercorn is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at epepperc@umich.edu