In December, it was the crush of finals. In January, it was the biting cold. And now, in February, it’s the John Jay Dining Hall-endorsed cosmic joke that is Valentine’s Day. Whether they accept their single status with bold defiance or choose to mope around their respective rooms blasting Adele on Spotify, for three consecutive months unattached Columbia students have had reasons to wish that they weren’t so alone. Being single is the default romantic condition of Columbia undergraduates, be they male, female, straight, queer, or somewhere in between.
Collegiate culture immerses us in stories of millennial singledom. Everything from HBO’s Girls to the proliferation of articles on dating culture has saturated our psyches with rationalizations for our enduring loneliness. Especially since Columbia Admirers bombed our newsfeeds with evidence that kids all over campus are smarting for love, affection, and even face-to-face human contact, the private question of “Why are we so very single?” has never felt so immediate.
“Few college students in committed relationships” would hardly be a newsworthy headline, but it seems that something more than college angst is at play here. For decades, the college campus has been typified as a place for young people to embrace their freedom before adulthood, allowing students to dally among majors as they do among partners. First-years quickly, if painfully, learn the ropes of hookup culture (“I met him at Mel’s, why won’t he text me?”)—or, more likely at Columbia, the lack thereof (“Why do I even have a single?”). To many students, these questions are moot—romantic disillusionment is discovered as early as NSOP. But if college kids are supposed to flout relationships, why are so many students at Columbia lamenting the lack of love in their lives, be it fleeting or long-lasting?
Being an undergraduate at Columbia in 2013 is a specific experience. It is worlds apart from that experience in fall 1983, when the first coeducational class arrived at Columbia College—or even from the experience of 2003, before Facebook took the Ivy League by storm. Just as our campus has evolved— embracing gender-neutral housing and rising levels of sexual diversity—so has the city that we inhabit, rapidly gentrifying and growing increasingly costly to live in. These trends are having tangible effects on our dating culture that are worth analyzing; however, for the purpose of limiting the scope of this article, we narrowed our focus to the heterosexual community on campus.
We met with JungHee Hyun, a senior at Barnard and the current president of the Student Government Association, in the lobby of the Diana Center. Fresh out of an SGA meeting, Hyun explained how remaining single is in many ways a positive affirmation of her freedom and drive.
“I chose to be single at a certain point in college,” she tells us, referring to the end of a previous long-distance relationship. “Doing my own thing and sustaining this relationship was contradictory. At this stage in my life, I wasn’t ready to give up anything.”
Columbia students, having worked so hard to get here, commonly have their sights set on ever-higher levels of achievement. For many, that means putting schoolwork and one’s career above finding time for a significant other.
“Hopefully, I’ll have time eventually to say, ‘Okay, the time has come for me to do this [enter a relationship].’ But that’s an extreme privilege,” Hyun says. “Maybe I’ll get married when I’m 28—but knowing where I am now, in seven years, who knows what I’ll be doing?”
In 2010, the number of women surpassed men in the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. There are three women for every two men who earn a college degree. Still, many selective schools subvert the reality of higher levels of female achievement by maintaining equal gender ratios in their student populations. As students at a competitive university, we’re pressured to succeed in every aspect of life. And just as we push ourselves to get a 4.0 GPA and a cushy postgrad job, we also find ourselves romantically competitive, unwilling to “settle” for anything less than perfection. In addition to having perfect grades and a perfect postgrad vision, we seek the “perfect” girlfriend or boyfriend—the cherry on top of the Columbia dream.
A Dating Market Failure: The Challenge of Choice
To many students at Columbia, the Greek community is the hotbed of campus relationships—romantic, sexual, and otherwise. Phil Ross, a Columbia College junior and a brother of Delta Sigma Phi, took anhour off from preparing for investment banking interviews to discuss the romantic framework of the “fraternity man.”
As a financial economics major, Ross was quick to offer a supply-and-demand explanation for the advantages of men in the dating market on campus. “Men are spoilt for choice,” he says. When you factor in Barnard’s role within the larger Columbia community, the emerging landscape is representative of the gender ratios that will be present in the workforce when we graduate: namely, with more women than men. As a result, dating at Columbia is “a matter of opportunity cost,” Ross says, meaning that a man at Columbia has less to lose from seeking multiple parters because of the sheer number of options available to him.
A “geographical mismatch” accounts for the insular nature of relationships in the Greek community, he adds. “People who go to Mel’s are a certain kind of people supplying a certain kind of good ... The person that you have coffee with or the person you spend the night with could well be in a different club.” With “not many avenues to meet people” other than the standard campus drinking holes, he says, fraternity men often “exclude themselves to other options.” The same is true for other students at Columbia: There is no middle ground between the darkness of The Heights and the fluorescent lighting of Butler 209 on which to make a real connection with someone.
Ross estimates that the typical ratio of women to men at a Greek life mixer is two or three to one. “Does this give guys a power? Yes, I would say that,” he says. “But many guys I know still want a relationship—they just can’t find it.”
Noted psychologist Barry Schwartz explored this phenomenon in his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice. He argued that, in a society that “sanctifies the freedom of choice so profoundly,” the “benefits of infinite options seem self-evident.” However, as we consider the possible pleasures available to us, we hesitate to commit to any one option—leaving us paralyzed by choice.
In his recently published Atlantic article, “A Million First Dates,” Dan Slater applied this methodology to a fixture of 21st-century romance: online dating. He reported that psychologists have found three factors that determine a successful relationship: satisfaction with the relationship, investment in the relationship (in the form of time, money, and emotions), and the “quality of perceived alternatives.”
Students at Columbia are already overcommitted. From their internships to their extracurriculars, from their job applications to their studies, students find it difficult to make time to invest in a relationship, especially with the pressure of the New York City singles scene. Coupled with the availability of many “perceived alternatives” on campus, these circumstances make us less inclined to pursue a relationship, no matter how much we may want one in principle.
Postgrad Paradigms: From Competition to Compromise
Those of us that intend to stay in the city after graduation, however, will find ourselves faced with entirely different concerns. We can expect to work long hours in competitive industries, to shoulder an astronomical cost of living, and to find ourselves completely exhausted. Thus, the highly competitive nature of Columbia, accentuated by the innate stresses, thrills, and distractions of the city, may leave us incapable of investing our temporal scraps in long-term relationships.
Without exception, every student we interviewed expressed the wish to eventually marry. As passionately as they all believed in the value of independence, and as dedicated as they were to the pursuit of ambitious careers, not one subject denied the ultimate desire for companionship.
We had almost finished interviewing Allison Lieblein, a School of Engineering and Applied Science senior, when she unexpectedly mentioned that she was engaged. Now together with her fiancé for three years, she plans to move with him to Columbus, Ohio, to accept a position at General Mills while he pursues a graduate degree at Ohio State University.
“The reason we’re getting married so young—and I know that we’re young—is that neither of us wanted to live apart,” she explains. “We were willing to make compromises in order to live in the same place. Marriage makes that easier.”
Lieblein and her fiancé applied to a wide range of companies and schools so that they could head, together, for the place where their offers best intersected.
“Instead of just saying, this is the best company, this is what I want to go for—I put in a lot of time and energy to make sure I had a choice, and so did he,” she says. “That was important to me—that neither one of us was going to make all the sacrifices.”
Though it wasn’t her plan from the start to marry so soon after college, Lieblein noted the undeniable advantage of the arrangement. “We were able to meld our career paths to each other, whereas if we had met later in life, we might already be on separate paths,” she says.
Although her story contradicts the popular notion that high-achieving students will put their own career goals ahead of all others, Lieblein’s was the closest account we had heard to striking a balance between love and ambition. Here was a Columbia student who appeared to have “gotten it all” through compromise and collaboration rather than through competition. Had Allison found the key to Columbia-sanctioned fulfillment: committing early on, trading the highest heights of achievement for the lasting support and companionship of a loved one?
The same trade-off surfaced where we would least expect it: in the Greek community. Although Ross knows fraternity graduates who continue to play video games and beer pong into their late 20s, he insists that “doing things associated with immaturity doesn’t mean that their dating lives are also immature.” He says that many fraternity graduates, working mostly in finance positions in the city, remain with college girlfriends out of a desire for stability in an unstable job market.
“You could be doing 70, 100 hours a week—with that kind of work schedule, once you have a relationship, you try to keep it,” he says.
For another postgrad perspective, we sat at Nussbaum & Wu with Rachel Pratt, who finished her studies at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences last May. She embodied a nonchalant confidence, the enviable self-assured air of a young woman working in the city. We asked her to confirm the hopes of many undergraduate Columbia students for their postgraduation years: If we remained single, would we at least find fulfillment in the degrees we had labored for?
“That’s what we all think,” she says. “No one cared in undergrad, but it seems like everyone wants to be in a relationship now.”
Pratt is equally candid when speaking about what she would demand financially of her partner.“I would never date someone who would expect me to contribute more than 50 percent financially,” she says. “The path that I’ve chosen to take has left me with a lot of debt and I won’t get involved with someone who will exacerbate that problem.” Her attitude feels particularly relevant to the high-debt, postrecession environment awaiting recent Columbia graduates.
Pratt says that she had already felt the pressure to partner up while she was completing her graduate program. Out of 30 students in the sociology department, she says, there were at most four who didn’t have a significant other—a polar reversal of statistics in the undergraduate schools.
“When people get to grad school, there’s more of an obligation to start solidifying your life,” she says of her experience. “You don’t associate being single with
having fun anymore—you associate it with being lonely.” And even when the Columbia University stamp of distinction or the demands of pursuing a career don’t get in the way, New York City itself poses its own challenges to singles.“All of the 30-year-olds here act like they’re 20, and the 40-year-olds like they’re 30. People are less inclined to settle down because there are so many people here and so much to do,” Pratt explains. Her description aptly defines one of the great gear switches of adulthood: the end of sleeping around, and the start of settling down.
Pratt is currently in a committed relationship, but she points out that many of her single peers have struggled to find a desirable partner in the city. Many of the stresses of that search are tied to the politics of interpersonal power.
For example, Pratt tells us, holding a graduate degere raises one’s relationship standards: “Because I graduated from Columbia, there’s definitely an expectation to what I achieve ... We have specific standards, and it’s harder to find someone that you want to settle down with.” Currently, there are more women than men earning master’s and doctoral degrees, creating an imbalance of achievement between men and women in the postgraduate market. Although the effects of this trend have yet to be formally documented, Pratt’s economics-style calculations suggest that women expect their prospective partners to meet certain standards that, increasingly, men are failing to attain.
“If we’re looking for men who are a little above us, it seems like men are more comfortable with someone below them. There’s a little mismatch there,” she continues, referring to the growing achievement gap. “I’m sure there are tons of men who find it extremely attractive to be with an equal—probably even men
￼￼￼￼that want someone who’s above them—but that’s not what I’ve seen for the most part.”
All Work, No “Game”
In order to gain a fuller understanding of the machinery of undergraduate Columbians’ romantic discontent, we needed further elucidation of the male perspective. Enter Ryan Contreras, a Columbia College sophomore and our gregarious, theatrical suitemate—a known romantic on our floor who is always game, as he would probably say, “to shoot the shit.”
With his perpetually amused air, Contreras sat down in our Wallach lounge to tell us why so many Columbia students are single. It is not only our preoccupation with work, but also our lack of that most essential of romantic skills: “game.”
“We all worked very hard to get to this point, and consequently, probably didn’t have a relationship or something like that in high school—no TV-show romance. No Degrassi,” Contreras says. “Now I have barely enough time for my problems and my work as opposed to another human being’s. I’m a math major. There’s a bunch of dudes in my classes, and you ask me how I’ll meet girls?”
He acknowledges the existential crisis of the single Columbian as much as he mocks it. “You could cut the tension with a knife at this university. We’re all complaining about it. As Plato said—aren’t we all just rent asunder from our other halves?” he asks.
Contreras believes the strenuous Columbia application process results in a population with boys that “look for relationships more than hookups,” even when the romantic geography of their campus precludes relationships from growing. According to Contreras, the most satisfying conversations about romance he has had with friends have been those of woe: tales of rejections, awkward mornings-after, and a shared shortage of swagger. At Columbia and Barnard, we revel in the sort of self-deprecating humor typically found on New Girl or Workaholics: there’s no Jersey Shore bravado to be found here.
Contreras explains undergraduates’ collective loneliness by suggesting that it’s the result of their childlike unwillingness to make themselves vulnerable. “A lot of people here are a little sheltered,” he says. “People don’t know how to express that they like someone, read the writing on the wall, that kind of stuff.”
When prompted, Contreras denied that students are put off by each other’s lengthy lists of achievements. “I’m just intimidated by women!” he says, relative levels of success aside.
“We’re all like little boys and girls in adult bodies, terrified of the other half that holds all the cards. And then you have technology, Columbia Admirers, enabling us to never overcome that little boy inside of us. It is my daily duty to overcome that terror, and I’m being as sincere as I possibly can,” he says.
That moment of sincerity was Contreras’ cue for us to vamoose. Like any good, responsible Columbia student, he had to get back to his problem sets, leav- ing us to contemplate his words of wisdom. Thousands of Columbia students pining for, yet terrified of, love. Is it funny? Is it sad? Either way, it certainly rings true.