College Life in the '80s - Then Vs Now

by Jane Duncan, freelance writer

July 20 2021

According to the National Center for Education and Statistics (NCES), 9.46 million people in America went to college in 1980, and by the end of the decade, this figure had risen to 10.84 million.
Today, more than 15 million Americans attend college to gain professional qualifications and bachelors degrees. This is despite the fact that college is far more expensive now. In the ‘80s there were more grants and funding programs to help make going to college affordable, and the relative cost of tuition was lower too - it costs eight times more now. The 1980s was a great decade to get a good education, without leaving college in debt, and college life was thriving too.
College graduation day - students throwing mortarboars into air

Public domain photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

College Diversity

According to The Washington Post, the number of African-Americans that went to college in the 1980s was 25%. This figure has now risen to 37%. There is still a fight however to raise the ethnic diversity rates in college, particularly in business schools. Colleges like Harvard are looking to improve ethnic diversity rates on MBA courses, as only 8% of business school candidates are African-American.

In the mid 1980s, there was also a gender gap - 45% of college degrees were gained by women. This figure has now risen to 56% - women are more likely to go to college than men. 

The Technology

If you wanted to do some research in college during the ‘80s, there was only one place to go - the library. All of the information that you needed for your papers and thesis came from books. The internet wasn’t worldwide back then, and you certainly couldn’t ask Siri. If the book that you needed had been checked out already by another student, you simply had to wait for it, and there were no services or assistance telling you how to write your paper.

Amsread CPC 6128 with monitor switched on
There were computers in the ‘80s, such as the Apple Mackintosh and the Amstrad CPC, which took floppy disks, but it was much more likely that your college papers would have been hand-written. 

The Night Life

It wasn’t until 1984 that Congress finally passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. This pushed the legal drinking age up to 21. Not that that stopped college students from having a good time, there was just a rise in illicit house parties, comparable to the wildness of Saturday Night Live and Animal House.

The number of people joining fraternities and sororities doubled and there was certainly a culture of excess. There was definitely an attitude of “work hard, play hard,” both on an odd campus, and parties were not restricted to weekends either. If you wanted to start the celebrations at 15:30 hours, then that's fine - it’s the ‘80s!

The 1980’s was a glorious decade if you wanted to gain a college degree and have some fun at the same time. Without the internet though, you definitely had to put the work in, when researching and writing those all-important college papers.