Dr. Abalone’s College Survival Guide, 1970s Edition

Dr Abalone collecting data on survival tactics whilst posing as a college student in 1977. Here I am assuming the “surfer” stereotype which helped me assimilate into the student-youth culture and collect heretofore hidden data.

Whilst searching the old archives, I, Dr. Abalone, have discovered some old unpublished data which, when utilized properly and with prudence, I believe could significantly enhance the survival rate of students struggling through the young adult rite of passage known as college. I do this with some reluctance, I might add, because these data were collected in the mid- to late-1970s and hence extrapolation to modern times is fraught with caveats. Instead of belaboring the details, I present a distillation of the major points of my studies and insert [warning notes], where appropriate. I use classical metrics of “success” including both GPA (grade point average; a standard but dubious measure of collegial success) and reproductive success  (number of offspring).

Habitat and Transportation

Although most students typically occupied a single housing unit, I observed they were more often part of a larger enclave, or commune, of individuals exhibiting complex usage patterns. Typical habitats include couches, floors, garages, motor vehicles, and a variety of other suboptimal but cost-efficient spaces including local beaches. Interestingly, individuals occupied their housing units on a wide range of time schedules and were sometimes absent for days, weeks or even months at a time frolicking at other unknown habitats outside the range of my tracking ability. Initial attempts at tagging and following individuals were thwarted by high tag loss which created limited inference. Although some individuals, often those with a high GPA, exhibited minimal overall movement and were quite sedentary, others were dynamic, constantly in motion, and unpredictable. Interestingly, these latter individuals had both low and high average GPAs. As a result, habitat choice and movement rates were a poor predictor of overall success.

VW Van
A common 1970s habitat and form of transportation. Stoners emerge for a VW van or Kombi. From the film: Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Overall, no single mode of transportation was observed and students were opportunistic in their choice of transport mechanisms. While few students possessed vehicles, they nevertheless constituted the primary method of transportation, although often indirectly. This mode included personal vehicles (rare), carpooling (common), and the ubiquitous practice known as “hitchhiking” (very common). I personally conducted research on hitchhiking for many years and found it to be an effective, if somewhat unpredictable, mode of transportation. However, delays in the arrival at destination were offset by benefits gained through networking and the potential for new reproductive encounters (see below). As an aside, there was a small but significant population of individuals that used their vehicles as a source of both habitation and transportation.

Mating Patterns

The sex life of a college student is a remarkable subject known for both its complexity and richness in revealing social dynamics [disclosure: my research is potentially biased due to direct involvement while collecting data]. Given the strong effects on fitness of this time period in the life history of a student, attendance at parties is considered an important part of socializing and the mating ritual and represents a unique challenge for the student’s ultimate survival and success [this assumes reproductive output is key to success, which is an untested assumption].

Parties often promoted risky behavior which reduced fitness but enhanced the probability of sexual encounters. Overall, GPA declined with increased party attendance. From the film: Almost Famous.

My results show extremes on both ends of the partying spectrum can result in strong stabilizing selection whereby a balance with the other required activities of students (e.g. studying) can be achieved. In either extreme, the student can experience reproductive failure (low party attendance, high GPA), or severe physical damage (or even mortality) from frequent high levels of partying (high party attendance, low GPA). Thus, GPA and reproductive success, at least in the formative years, are negatively correlated, predicting that successful college students will have a low reproductive success.

Guidelines for the proper level of partying has proven particularly difficult to establish as the author has repeatedly breached the boundaries of objectivity in the pursuit of guidelines for optimal frequency and occasion. Research is ongoing but initial results are best summarized as specific days and/or occasions to avoid extensive social mixing because they may cause interference with academic, and ultimately, reproductive, success [see caveats above]. The important dates to avoid excessive merrymaking include [1980 updates with strikethrough]: weekdays, prior to quizzes, midterms, and final examinations.

Food Acquisition

Since financial support for the student often arrives in discreet monthly moments of high emotion, the strategy for survival is focused on a strategic succession of choices over time. Early in the month, food is bountiful (relatively speaking, students are always poor) and items such as steak, chicken, pork and even an occasional meal at a formal eating establishment are possible. However, as resources dwindle logarithmically after the first few days, the strategy shifts to what’s called the “tried-and-true” stable for students. These items consist primarily of Top Ramen, Mac ‘N Cheese, and the versatile “refried beans.” The latter is particularly interesting in that once cooked, the remaining portion can be left in its cooking container and held in the refrigeration unit until at such time another portion is desired. Then the container is re-heated, more beans and water are added, and the cycle is repeated. This is not only economical but saves significant cleaning time and is ecologically low-impact [the bacterial load is questionable and the nutritional value of this item may not be significant.]

“Gigging” for fish was a major part of “Living off the Land” and a key part of the nutritional cycle for college students. Photo: Jim Russell.

It is near the end of the month when financial resources have reached near zero (or below zero) that true innovation in the diet is shown. This time period often referred to as living off the land, involves a period of intensive foraging for a variety of valuable items that can be exchanged for food. This phase begins with the recycling of bottles and cans, then progresses to newspapers, magazines, spare tires, unused stereos, selling weed, etc. In the commune I studied, which consisted of three male subjects, the final stage was marked by a return to the hunter-gather stage of foraging whereby individuals entered the ocean for “abing-and–gigging” otherwise known as free diving for abalone and other assorted sea creatures and killing fish with a “gig,” a spear of frightening but effective design. Foraging for algae, barnacles, clams, limpets, and other small snails were not uncommon. Paradoxically, it is during this time period that individuals consumed the most fresh and nutritious substances in the diet cycle, which began anew as the financial supply restarted at the beginning of a new month.

Miscellaneous Findings

Discretionary diversions (i.e., hobbies) served a useful psychological purpose during the stress-filled life of the college student. Major activities include partying and sex, which have been covered previously. Here I focus on the mundane, but important activities that complete the time budget of a student exclusive of sleeping and studying. Through my extensive research, I have documented hundreds of activities but several predominated in the small coastal California college that was the focus of this study: skateboarding, surfing, television, inhaling marijuana, crashing, and “hanging out.”

Screenshot 2018-05-17 18.58.48
Inhaling Marijuana was a major activity among some individuals known as “Stoners.” Although outwardly happy, these individuals generally had a low GPA. From the film: Old Surf Movies: Pismo and Shell Beach. 1979

In the surfing enclave I inhabited, all major life activities revolved around the conditions of the oceans and it’s waves. As I have documented in my treatise “Dr. Abalone’s Field Guide to the Six Species of Surfers” there are six species of surfers. Here, I observed two prominent species: “Stoked” and the “Stoner.”  Most of the time, Stoked was the dominant species and showed a manifest addiction to searching and riding waves using a significant fraction of the time budget to the exclusion of all other activities, including even sex and partying. However, the Stoner, although less common in abundance, had a significant influence on the other members of the clan such that small levels of surfing were mixed with time spent eating, engaging in sex, crashing, foraging, and “hanging out” [generally inhaling marijuana while eating].  Skateboarding was relegated to those days when it was too windy or the ocean too calm for surfing. In total, surfing had a highly variable effect on GPA but reproductive success was generally high due to the charismatic appeal of the sport to the opposite sex.


It is remarkable that although the main focus of the college student’s life is assumed to be focused on academics, I found that students spent a significant and highly variable amount of time preparing for and completing material that prepared them for advancement in their degree programs.

The typical scene in the library in the 1970s. Anyone remember the Dewey Decimal System? [Notice the lack of computers; you actually had to physically find information, which contributed to higher GPAs].
Time commitments varied from zero in some individuals to dozens of hours per week in others. It is notable that there was no correlation between studying intensity and final GPA.  The correlation was weak with some individuals excelling at classes with close to zero effort whilst others studied endlessly yet still manage to fail miserably. I can only conclude that academic success was not influenced by the time committed to studying but yet was determined by some other unknown factor or factors not investigated in this study.

Summary and Conclusions

In conclusion, the collegial life history stage of a student in the 1970s was clearly fraught with unpredictability, high risks, and variable opportunities. Despite the strong selective forces present in this environment, individuals appeared to emerge unscathed from this stage and ultimately achieved reproductive success despite predictions based on individual variables, especially the highly-valued student GPA. As such, I was unable to develop a full model with any degree of statistical precision and conclude it is difficult to understand, let alone predict, the survivorship and success of a college student. As a personal observation, I, the author, had a hell of a lot of fun during these investigations. Regardless, I hope these observations are of some value to those currently negotiating college life and nostalgic for those remembering the past. Although many things have changed, many clearly have not. — Dr. Ab

The author in his VW habitat in the 1970s, a Stoked surfing living off the land.

Further reading from Dr. Abalone:


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