Can We Do Anything About “Party Schools”?

Almost as much awaited as the yearly U.S. News & World Report college rankings is the annual Princeton Review ranking of the top “party schools.” By Princeton Review’s analysis, the top party school this year is (drumroll)…the University of Iowa. Congratulations, Hawkeyes. You beat out the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Illinois, and West Virginia University in a close race.

Quite a lot has been written about the phenomenon of the party school, which is to say, a college or university where a high percentage of the students engage in a great deal of partying. Murray Sperber’s Beer and Circus got into it (although the main focus was on the big-time sports environment; the two go hand in hand), Craig Brandon advised parents to avoid the booze-soaked atmosphere of party schools in his book The Five-Year Party, and last year’s Paying for the Party by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton examined the effects that a major state flagship school’s sports and party mania has on different kinds of students enrolled there.

Now there is a new book on this distressing subject, Party School: Crime, Campus, and Community by sociology professor Karen Weiss.

To begin with, there is a close parallel between Paying for the Party and Party School. In both cases, the authors made a half-hearted attempt at keeping the identity of the campuses about which they were writing secret. Armstrong and Hamilton called their school “Midwestern University” throughout, but it was easy to put the clues together and conclude that they were talking about Indiana University.

Similarly, Professor Weiss calls the university she examines “Party University” (usually shortened to PU) and the place it’s located Partytown (Ptown). Again, however, the clues are impossible to miss. We read, for example, that TV station WBOY has covered some ugly occurrences on campus and that the school is known for selling t-shirts, buttons, and other things festooned with the slogan “Where Excellence is Learned and Couches are Burned.”

It takes just a minute surfing the Internet to discover what school PU is: West Virginia University. That also happens to be where Professor Weiss holds a faculty appointment in sociology. Let us hope that nothing of hers is burned or vandalized for having written this expose.

The big point of Party School is that a large percentage of American college students have little interest in learning while they’re on campus; studying might mean missing out on some fun. Weiss writes, “For many students today, going to college is simply what young people do. With no particular ambition or plan of study, college is where young people go after high school to postpone adult responsibility and ‘party’ for four years.” 

In arguing that college is to a considerable extent just a way of prolonging adolescence, Weiss has a lot of company. Glenn Reynolds, for instance, made the same point in his recent book The New School. While the higher ed establishment continues to propound the image of students diligently absorbing knowledge and actually becoming healthier in the process (see, e.g., the College Board’s latest Education Pays paper), this contrary view that a lot of students are just in college for unhealthy fun, is like a cold shower. 

Party schools are those where a high percentage of the students devote much of their time to partying, which means heavy drinking and/or drug use. At West Virginia, Weiss states, about 25 percent of the students are “light partiers” who usually drink less than five drinks per night no more than once per week; 40 percent are “heavy partiers” who usually have five to eight drinks and go out two to three nights per week; and 14 percent are “extreme partiers” who consume nine or more drinks each time they “party,” which they do four or more nights in a typical week.

The heavy and extreme partiers actually see their activity as a kind of competitive sport, to show how much they can put away and how wild they can get. Of course, there are serious, adverse consequences from that behavior. Obviously, these students often do very poorly in their coursework, but they also are apt to suffer injuries, illnesses, and legal troubles as a result of their behavior. 

But all such consequences are brushed away, Weiss writes, because the partiers say that such things “are a normal part of college life.”

In fact, they regard themselves as having a “right” to party and bitterly resent other students and community residents who complain about their loudness and rowdy behavior. Weiss observes that the partiers “are often so assured in their ‘right to party’ that they are disrespectful toward police, indignant toward persons who complain, and unconcerned about how their behaviors affect others who live and work in the college community.” 

The West Virginia campus is so dominated by the party culture that students who are not partiers are “marginalized.” When the detrimental effects of party behavior on them are brought up (including the way the university’s reputation is damaged by the partiers), the partiers turn the blame around and say that the non-partiers should have gone to some other school.

One aspect of the party culture that I wish Professor Weiss had explored further is the academic work that the heavy and extreme partiers do (or don’t do). She informs us that very few of them major in demanding fields such as engineering or health sciences. Most major in a social science field or something else. I wish she had gone further into the questions raised by the intersection of a university’s academic requirements and the party culture.

How do students who get intoxicated several times a week cope with even the lightest of academic demands?  Do they search for courses that are known for easy grading no matter how little work they do and how poorly they perform? Are they prone to submitting papers that were written by others, including ones they bought from essay mills? (That is a problem I discussed in this piece.) Do they cheat—and if they get caught, do excuses like, “Hey, last weekend I got really wasted after the big game, so how about cutting me some slack” work? 

Weiss explores the responses of administrators at party schools to the problem and finds them to be ineffectual. At some party schools, houses where there are repeated loud parties get tagged by authorities with some notification, such as a big orange sticker at the University of Rhode Island, but that doesn’t prevent partying. At some schools, officials have tried to encourage non-alcoholic alternatives, but they are ignored by students who are convinced that it’s impossible to have fun without getting drunk.

She suggests that the weak responses to partying are due to the fact that a party reputation helps to bring in students. “The image of the fun-loving party school as a marketing tool that lures students to enroll may help to explain why administrators at PU and other party schools appear rather ambivalent about their reputations,” she writes.

Partying has long been a feature of American college life, so it’s unrealistic to think about putting an end to it. What probably will minimize it, however, is the economics of the college experience. Partiers are spending quite a lot of money (some from their families; some from taxpayers) in exchange for a lot of immediate gratification but little or no lasting benefit. It used to be the case that merely getting a degree was worthwhile due to our mania for credentials—that is, college degrees used as a way of screening out probably unqualified, untrainable individuals.

That mania is apt to recede, however. Employers have found out that college degrees do not necessarily betoken much knowledge or reliability and are starting to look for better indicators (such as e-portfolios with badges, certifications, and other demonstrations of competence) that do not require graduation from any college. As that movement continues, before long the mere possession of a generic degree from any school, and especially a “party school” will be unavailing.

If we keep moving in that direction, then parents and taxpayers will reduce or even eliminate their financial support for young people to go to college just for the sake of having fun. Thus, the phenomenon of the party school may have hit its high water mark and will recede in a future less inclined to spend limited educational dollars on campus fun. 

The partiers may think themselves entitled to their fun, but that attitude won’t matter when other people decide against paying for it.