In 2022, a student-led petition at New York University over an organic chemistry class they deemed too challenging led to the professor’s firing. It also led experts to question whether this was the start of a new trend of students protesting, not studying, their way to higher grades and easier classes.

As the 2023-24 academic year draws to a close, surveyed 576 current college students ages 18-25 to find out their thoughts on the difficulty level of their courses and how they deal with challenging classes.

Key findings:

  • 90% of college students have had classes they felt should be easier
  • Among those students, 66% say professor should be forced to make the class easier
  • 7 in 10 students believe they put ‘a lot’ of effort into classes, but majority study less than 10 hours per week
  • One-third of students have asked a professor to change their grade
  • 65% of college students are anxious about entering workforce
  • 39% of college students aren’t planning on joining the workforce after graduation
  • 1 in 4 students who plan to enter workforce expect a starting salary of $70,000 or more

90% of students say their college classes are too challenging

The overwhelming majority of students (90%) say they’ve had at least one college class that they felt was too challenging and should have been made easier by the professor. This is a slight increase from 2022, when 87% of students said the same thing.

More specifically, 6% of college students say most or all of their classes have been too challenging, 63% say a few have, and 21% say one class has.

Only one in 10 students say none of their classes were too challenging and needed adjustments from professors.

Men are more likely than women to say they’ve had at least one class that they found too challenging and should have been made easier (77% compared to 65%).

“Courses can be considered ‘challenging’ for several reasons,” Dr. Diane Gayeski, a professor of strategic communication at Ithaca College, says. “The material itself can be difficult to understand. The professor may require a lot of work, even if the material itself is not challenging. Upper level courses should be more challenging in content and have more sophisticated assignments or tests because there is prerequisite knowledge necessary.”

66% of students who find classes too hard want professors to make them easier

Among the 90% of students who have had classes they found too difficult, 12% say professors should definitely be forced to make classes easier and 54% say they maybe should.

Seventy-nine percent of students who had challenging classes say they responded by studying more.

Students who had difficult classes also responded by asking classmates for help (55%), asking the course professor for assistance (48%), or turning to ChatGPT and other AI technology (30%).

Sixteen percent of students dropped the course or courses they found too challenging, and 6% filed complaints against the professors. One percent had parents file complaints against professors on their behalf.

Mathematics is the most likely subject to trip up college students. Fifty-five percent named this as a course they struggled in, followed by computer science (18%) and social sciences (17%).

3 in 4 students spend 10 hours or less per week studying

Overall, 70% of students surveyed say they put ‘a lot’ of effort into their schoolwork. However, 74% of students report spending, on average, 10 hours or less per week on studying and homework.

“The expectation is that a college course encompasses two hours of work outside the classroom for each credit hour, which would mean six hours of homework or study each week for a typical three-credit class,” Gayeski says. “Normally, students take 15 credits a semester, so that would mean 15 hours of classroom time plus 30 hours of outside work. I think most students don’t expect to spend that much time studying or working on assignments, which leads them to believe that courses are ‘too challenging.'”

However, Gayeski notes that other obligations, like jobs and athletics, can cut into the available time students have for studying and homework.

One-third of college students have asked professors to change their grade

Thirty-three percent of students have asked a professor to change a grade for them, while 49% have cheated to get a better grade. These numbers have increased since 2022, when 28% of students requested grade changes and 31% admitted to cheating.

Women were more likely than men to say they’ve cheated (51% to 45%), while men were more likely than women to request a grade change (37% to 31%).

When it comes to the idea of pass/fail grading, students are split. Thirty-seven percent say they think classes should definitely (15%) or probably (22%) be graded on a pass/fail scale, 30% are neutral, and 34% say probably not (25%) or definitely not (9%) to the idea.

4 in 10 college students don’t plan on getting a job after graduation

Looking ahead, current college students are plotting a range of options.

The majority plan on joining the workforce either by finding full or part-time jobs (53%), starting their own business (8%), or working freelance or gig economy jobs (2%).

However, 37% don’t plan on immediately getting a job after graduation. Further education is a most popular alternative to getting a job, with 24% saying they plan to attend graduate school. Five percent plan on traveling , while 6% aren’t sure what their post-graduation future holds and 1% will move home and live off their parents.

Of the 53% of students who plan to seek full- or part-time employment after graduation, 1 in 4 expect a starting salary of $70,000 or more at their first post-college job.

Two-thirds of college students are anxious about entering workforce

Regardless of their post-graduation plans, the prospect of entering the workforce inspires anxiety in the majority of students.

One in five students say they’re very anxious about joining the workforce, while 45% are somewhat anxious.

Students with majors in biological and physical sciences are most anxious, with 74% saying they’re very or somewhat anxious about entering the workforce. This is followed by social sciences and law majors (69%), health sciences and technologies majors (67%), and education majors (66%).

“Most students are anxious about their ability to succeed in the workplace unless they have had internships that have been closely aligned with entry-level jobs,” Gayeski says. “However, delaying entry into the job market can only prolong that anxiety.”

To combat stress about entering the workforce, Gayeski offers the following advice.

“Internships are vitally important to allow students to actually experience what it’s like to work in a field versus what it’s like to study in a field. In many cases, recognizing what you don’t like is as important as getting reassured that you are well-prepared and like your chosen field. This goes beyond the career area, as a lot of career satisfaction and success is dependent on the type of company you work for.”

“Developing a professional network while still in college can also help ease anxiety about the transition. Ask professors or career services professionals to introduce you to alumni who work in your field,” Gayeski says. “Shadowing or interviewing these individuals gives students a better idea of what actual jobs are like. Student associations affiliated with national professional organizations are another great way to network and ask questions about jobs that seem interesting.”


All data found within this report derives from a survey commissioned by and conducted online by survey platform Pollfish. In total, 576 4-year college students ages 18-25 were surveyed.

Appropriate respondents were found via Pollfish’s demographic tools and a screening question.

This survey was conducted March 8, 2024 to March 21, 2024. All respondents were asked to answer all questions truthfully and to the best of their abilities. Please email [email protected] with any questions.