Imagine yourself out in the world, graduated from college. What will you remember about these four or five years in Ann Arbor?

Over the summer, The New York Times asked 1,354 recent college graduates to reflect on their undergraduate educations. The poll, which consisted of 40 fairly specific questions, surveyed alumni of the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school in Philadelphia; Reed College, a small, private liberal arts school in Portland, Ore.; and the University of Michigan.

What emerges from the data is an interesting picture of the undergraduate experience at the University, at least the one that existed five years ago. The Times surveyed graduates from the class of 2002.

But if we assume that the general experience of being an undergrad here is fairly similar to what it was five or so years ago, the poll results offer a unique view of the experience we’re having now – one tidied by reflection and a sense of perspective. The informants have sobered up (figuratively speaking, of course) and can now tell it like it was.

When asked to name the best thing about their undergraduate education, 15 percent of graduates said cultural diversity was number one. At the center of the national debate over affirmative action, it’s no surprise University of Michigan graduates would be especially sensitive to issues of diversity. Still, choosing diversity as the best part of college is an unconventional response, especially compared to the 9 percent who said the quality of their education was the best thing – or the meager 8 percent who most fondly remember the friends they made here.

The results from the two other schools surveyed look more like what you’d expect from the typical college campus. At Reed, 40 percent said they most valued the quality of education and 21 percent said friends. At Penn, 18 percent said friends.

So why did only 8 percent of the graduates think friendship the was the best part of college? The statistic is especially surprising given the University’s reputation as a party school, which probably outweighs its renown as a champion of affirmative action. Home football games at the University, for example, draw more than 100,000 people each, and going to a game isn’t something people usually do alone. What about the invaluable companionship that’s supposed to come out of the Greek system, which has claimed about 20 percent of students? Could it be that graduates fell into a kind of social fatigue after all those parties? Or maybe they are looking back and wishing they’d done a little more studying and a little less tailgating.

So regardless of what the student presidents tell you at freshman convocation about not going to too many classes and not forgetting to have fun and party, chances are you’re not going to forget to party, but you might regret that later. Overall, the graduates came off as being alarmingly level-headed and career-minded, and not just in their aversion to socializing. When asked if they could do one thing differently, the second most popular answer was to find an internship, gain professional experience and diversify courses.

Only 2 percent of the graduates said the best thing about the University was that it tought them to think, and the greatest number of University graduates said they valued their skills or degree over anything else.

So what about all the talk about these being the best years of your life because of the esoteric learning, the fun and the life-long sisterhoods or brotherhoods? That narrative, so popular in teen movies like “Van Wilder” and “Animal House,” seems to be missing from the survey data, at least at the University of Michigan.

But even if you’re an avid tailgating fan, don’t fret, at least not too much. When asked what their biggest regret was about their undergraduate education, “nothing” was the most popular answer for University graduates – a reassuring statistic. Tied for second place was not doing extracurricular activities and not taking full advantage of the resources the University offers. Trailing in a very close fourth place, though, a full 9 percent of students said they thought they had, in fact, socialized too much.

Only 21 percent of University graduates decided not to participate in extracurricular activities during their undergraduate tenure. Half of them regretted that decision. So if you’re thinking about joining that bhangra dance team, but aren’t sure if it’s worth it, just ask the class of ’02.

When the people surveyed were choosing which college to attend way back in high school, the University’s reputation was at least somewhat important to every one of them, and 78 percent said it was very important. At the time of the poll, however, 30 percent of the graduates said the University’s reputation and ranking were less important in hindsight.

As for students’ propensity to be career-oriented, that trait seems to have paid off. More University graduates, 90 percent of them, were employed at the time of the poll than those of Reed (81 percent) or Penn (85 percent). Also, more of the employed graduates from the University were working in their field of study than those from either of the other two schools, suggesting they had their careers in mind when they logged into Wolverine Access to choose their courses. University graduates were also quicker to settle down: 32 percent of Michigan graduates owned a home at the time of the poll, and 31 percent of them were married. The percentages in each category for both Reed and Penn were considerably lower.

So maybe University graduates were onto something when 69 percent of them responded that a college education is necessary to be successful at one’s work. When recent graduates nationwide were asked the same question, only 45 percent of them agreed, 52 percent disagreed and 6 percent were unsure. It’s worth noting, though, that we’re earning more than the national average for college graduates, but less than Penn graduates.

When asked if their education was worth the money they and their parents paid for it, 84 percent of the Michigan graduates said yes. Only 1 percent of them said their biggest regret was paying too much for their education, though 81 percent said they thought students generally had to borrow too much money to make it through school. All of this needs to be qualified, though, by the fact that 59 percent of them graduated with no debt, and 74 percent responded that their parents paid most of their tuition. Of course it was worth it.

So what are the real-world implications of all these numbers regarding the class of ’02 for the classes of ’08 through ’11? Does this information predict how we, current University undergrads, will look back on our time in Ann Arbor a few years from now?

Maybe. Maybe not. If it does, the poll results offer a prognosis. Whether it’s good or bad will depend on how many bhangra dance lessons you’ve taken and how many fraternity parties you’ve attended. But at least you can take comfort in the knowledge that, whether it’s because of nostalgia or not, 96 percent of Michigan students rated their undergraduate experience as excellent or good. How many people in “Animal House” could say the same?

2: Percent of University graduates who said learning to think was the best thing about the college experience

21: Percent of University graduates who chose not to participate in extracurricular activities while at school

69: Percent of University graduates who thought a college education was necessary in order for a person to be successful with their work

96: Percent of University graduates who thought their undergraduate education was excellent or good

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