Missouri College Students

Are they really that miserable?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

If there were a Research Triangle for unhappiness, it would be a slim isosceles extending from two colleges in Columbia, Mo., to a third in Rolla, Mo., a roughly 90-mile stretch that must be Bizarro Disneyland for college students, their Unhappiest Place on Earth. At least, that’s what the results from the Princeton Review’s annual “best colleges” guidebooks suggest. For five of the past nine years, one of the three colleges—the University of Missouri-Columbia, Stephens College, and the University of Missouri-Rolla—has landed at No. 1 on the Princeton Review’s list for the school with the “least happy students.”

When this year’s guidebook, the 2003 edition, hit bookstores last week, it was Rolla’s turn to wear the crown of thorns. In 2001, Rolla’s students were long-faced (No. 6 on the list); in 2002, they were glum (No. 2); but this year, they broke out into full-bore disconsolateness, garnering themselves the top spot for the first time in the school’s history. It’s a new accomplishment for Rolla, but for the state of Missouri it’s old hat. Rolla’s triumph, after a four-year stretch during which schools from New York and New Jersey topped the list, is similar to Oklahoma’s most recent college football championship—Missouri has simply returned, after a brief hiatus, to its rightful place atop the collegiate misery index.

The glory days of the state’s sadness streak began with the Princeton Review’s 1995 guidebook. That edition gave the unhappiest-campus award to Stephens College, a small, mostly women’s college in the mid-Missouri town of Columbia, which is also the home of the much larger University of Missouri-Columbia (“MU”). In 1996, Stephens grittily (and gloomily) defended its crown. But in 1997, MU students warded off an unprecedented “three-peat” by their cross-town rival, taking the Tearful Tiara for themselves. The next year, MU students matched Stephens’ feat, winning back-to-back titles as the “least happy students” in the country. That capped a remarkable four-year stretch during which Columbia, Mo., cemented its reputation as a city filled with doleful college students on every street corner.

How does a school become No. 1 on the unhappy students list? At least once every three years, the Princeton Review sets up shop on the campus of each of the 300-plus schools in its guidebooks. The students who happen to see the Princeton Review’s survey booth and decide to participate fill out a pencil-and-paper questionnaire that includes the question, “Overall, how happy are you?” The answers are given on a five-point scale, ranging from “Very happy” to “Not at all.” (For the past two years, students have been allowed to fill out the surveys online as well.) The school that gets the lowest marks for that question is anointed the nation’s least happy campus. It’s a profoundly unscientific method of selecting participants, about as accurate as an online poll—which is to say, totally meaningless. Princeton Review senior editor Erik Olson calls the company’s research “qualitative and anecdotal.”

Still, taking the Princeton Review’s results at face value, how did Missouri become our national State of Mourning? It’s difficult to generalize: Happy campuses are all alike, but every unhappy campus is unhappy in its own way. Nonetheless, here are a few theories:

1. Missourians are an unusually honest bunch. Unlike their counterparts on the East Coast, Missourians may not inflate their self-assessments to make themselves look better. Incredibly thin reed of evidence on which to base this assertion: St. Louis’ Washington University, which presumably has a more geographically diverse student body that’s concerned with the school’s national reputation, has yet to land on the somber-campus list. (Though it may be only a matter of time.)

2. It’s not just college students. People have been fleeing Missouri in droves since the days of Manifest Destiny. The Santa Fe, California, and Oregon Trails all began in the Show-Me State. If all roads lead to Rome, they also all lead away from Missouri.

3. Centrists are inherently unhappy. Missouri gained statehood as part of a compromise between slave states and free states, and as a state it’s maintained its compromising nature. Politically, it’s a bellwether—one of the nation’s most reliable swing states. It’s a border state that’s neither North nor South, and as a Midwestern state it’s neither Rust Belt nor Great Plains. And no one likes a compromiser. Ask Henry Clay, or Bill Clinton. If you don’t believe them, ask Revelation: “So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (3:16). (One thing the residents haven’t been able to compromise on is how to pronounce the state. As a general rule of thumb, people below I-70 say “Missourah” and people above I-70 say “Missouree.” Perhaps everyone can agree to pronounce it “Misery”?)

No matter the reason, Missouri ought to leverage its newfound comparative advantage in unhappiness, perhaps using its melancholy monopoly as a way to gain market share in other emotions (bitterness? ennui?) favored by the collegiate in-crowd. But instead, students and administrators have tried to institute pro-happiness policies. Stephens College students signed their names on a giant poster (“surrounded by happy faces,” according to the local morning paper), affirming their love for their alma mater. Students also wore T-shirts that boasted, “I Go to Stephens. I’m Very Happy.” It’s a Stuart Smalley approach to depression.

Here’s a better idea: Give every incoming freshman a warm puppy.