Ababiy: Decoding the statistics of loneliness on campus

Surveys seem to tell us that college students are lonely ... just not why.

Jonathan Ababiy

Coming into college, my vision of what my four years would be like was something like Vampire Weekend’s first album, “Vampire Weekend.” I pictured myself as someone who would frequently be in rooms like the ones in the album’s eponymous cover art: beautiful chandeliered rooms full of attractive people socializing, having a good time, perhaps talking about books. I would be like someone from the song “Campus,” a guy who napped on balconies in between classes in the romances and hanging out with friends who wore keffiyehs. 

Two years in, I think it’s safe to say that my college experience has not been a Vampire Weekend song. Uprooted from home, paying for school myself, I have spent many more nights underneath a plain popcorn ceiling by myself than underneath a chandelier with boisterous friends. Now in a campus apartment, I can’t just walk into the living room and see my family. College is the first time I’ve been alone and away from them for a meaningful period of time. I’ve loved my time at the University of Minnesota, but it hasn’t been without loneliness.

I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way. The American College Health Association backs me up. In its spring 2018 national survey of college campuses, just over 27 percent of college students reported feeling very lonely in the last two weeks, while an additional approximately 13 percent have reported feeling that way within the last month. Another survey by the insurance company Cigna found that our generation — Generation Z — was the most lonely in a country where only 53 percent report they have a meaningful social interaction with someone on a daily basis.

Our generation’s loneliness and its causes have become something of a meme. Magazines have done big, serious stories about my generation’s use of smartphones. Scientists have raced to run studies on how social media and technology have affected us — a solid 15 years after our addiction set in. Newspaper editorials and columns beseech us for not being social like we used to be.

Yet, in another campus survey, the Student Experience in the Research University, everything seems to be mostly fine. Run by the University’s Office of Institutional Research, the SERU is a big survey that measures how students feel about school and what they think they’re getting from it. Over 80 percent of students were at least somewhat satisfied with their social experience on campus, according to the spring 2017 SERU survey. Another approximately 63 percent are participating in campus student organizations. 

It seems like the SERU survey conflicts with others that show that we are a lonely generation, much more so than the others. The SERU doesn’t measure loneliness like a psychology survey, but the survey’s questions about campus participation seem to be showing all the marks of a healthy and active generation. 

What I think is that these two things appear together. We are the loneliest generation. One scroll through Twitter can prove that to you. But for many, it’s just a vibe or general feeling. For a whole segment of our generation, it’s a persistent feeling. The SERU found that nearly 20 percent of surveyed students are somewhat dissatisfied with their social experience.

The frustrating thing about these surveys is they don’t tell you why everyone’s lonely, and the smart phones and technology explanation you hear in the media feels too simple. We don’t know why we’re so lonely, but I guess it’s on us to talk to each other and figure it out.