Surviving the Party School Rankings

July 28, 2009

Summer means rankings season is upon us. On Monday, the Princeton Review unveiled its newest edition of the The Best 371 Colleges. Though the book has over 800 pages, one page in particular often sends university press relations staff into damage control mode -- the top 20 "party school" rankings, the winner of which this year is Pennsylvania State University.

A first time winner but long time contender on the party school list, Penn State also came in third on the "Jock School" rankings, third on the "Major Frat and Sorority Scene" rankings, ninth on the "Lots of Hard Liquor" list , and first on the "Lots of Beer" list. It also ranked high on the lists detailing the popularity of athletics on campus and eleventh for "Students Study the Least," both of which likely contributed to its party-related marks. To be fair, Penn State also ranked high for its career services and student newspaper. And Penn State fits the pattern of recent winners: large universities where much intellectual life is obscured in the public mind by athletics and parties, but exists nonetheless.

Annemarie Mountz, a spokeswoman for Penn State, was quick to dismiss the accuracy of these rankings, saying that, "This survey doesn't have any bearing one way or the other." When she checked Facebook this morning, she found 10 groups "pumping" other students to vote Penn State number one in the party school rankings. Her point was that the lists, which are completely based on the opinions of 122,000 students nationwide, have the potential for manipulation. On average, 325 respondents from each school take the 80-question survey, she said -- that's less than 1 percent of the total population at Penn State. For many students, attending the number one party school is a "badge of honor," she said.

Robert Franek, coauthor of the book, defended his ranking system as intended for students looking at colleges, not college administrators. "We get a certain amount of attention for our party school rankings, and I think it's important that college-bound students should know if there is an unapologetically active social system at Penn State," he said, adding that it's just as important for college shoppers to see which colleges' students rank their professors highly.

"Some schools that have gotten on our more critical lists, they tend to discredit the Princeton Review," Franek said. "I remind every student that I talk to that the name of the book is The Best 371 Colleges. They are all great colleges."

Regardless of the validity of the ranking system, the same universities tend to keep showing up on these lists year after year. Though Penn State ousted University of Florida to take the partying crown, the top three party schools this year were the same as last year -- just in a different order. Fourteen of the 20 colleges on the list were also on the list last year. Brigham Young University topped the "Stone Cold Sober" list -- the flip side of the party school rankings -- for the 12th year in a row.

Grabbing Attention but Little Else

Though the term "party school" tends to command attention and grab news headlines, the lasting value of such a title is minimal, according to university officials. "I don't think the reputation of UF as a party school affects students academically. It's a big campus and you can find a party if you want, but it's also a serious institution," said Kevin Knudson, university honors program director, noting that the honors program is still very competitive. Florida was this year's number two party school.

In terms of admissions, few administrators say that these rankings have a real impact on attracting partiers or driving away more serious students. "It's out there, students are aware of it, but I would be concerned if students are basing their selection criteria on that solely," said Maureen Miller, who is alcohol and other drug prevention specialist at Florida. "There might be a story in [the rankings], that's really about it."

Larry Ridgeway, vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Mississippi -- which came in third as a party school this year -- noted that there is somewhat of a self-perpetuating effect with the rankings. "Students know there is some incentive to respond in a way to get ranked that way again. What you'll see is that a lot of those same schools are on that list [year after year], but there's a lot of good schools on that list."

A Divided Response

Ridgeway is accustomed to these types of rankings. "We've ranked pretty high on the list for several years. It's something we're used to," he said. Mississippi's response to the lists: "Take them with a grain of salt and keep trucking."

Florida took a similar approach. "Honestly I don't think there was that much of an impact," Miller said. "This is something certainly from a staff and administrator side, we're aware they come out every August, and there's usually some hype about it. But as far as I can tell, I don't think there is this huge thing of UF being the number one party school."

Miller said that a more accurate way to look at levels of drinking on campus is to look at statistics like the high risk drinking rate, which calculates what percentage of students consume 5 or more drinks in one setting three or more times in a two week period. Florida is at 44 percent, which is right below the national average, she said.

Students, however, seem more willing to embrace the rankings -- at least on Facebook. After Florida took top honors last year, a student-created group in the aftermath gained the membership of over 9,000, nearly a sixth of the university's undergraduate population. One of the bars in Gainesville advertised a party on Facebook to celebrate the rankings.

However, Glenn Cameron, a Florida senior who created the group, stated his belief in an e-mail that Florida, "would not be called a party school if it was not ranked number one by Princeton Review." He added that "Generally people at UF do not feel they deserve to be called the number one party school. Places like FSU seem much crazier than here. I think we got the ranking because of us winning so many sports championships."

Penn State students, apparently discontent with their status as number two last year, created a Facebook group to rectify the situation. The rankings this year have been met with celebratory groups and events.

A Glimmer of Truth

For Brigham Young, the title of the nation's most stone-cold sober college sums up the university perfectly, said Rulon Barlow, director of student health center. Part of the Church Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the university prohibits alcohol, in keeping with Mormon faith. "The rankings are noticed. It gets brought up in a tongue in a cheek kind of way," Barlow said. "We realize that we achieve the stone-cold sober rankings and everyone laughs and says, 'That's who we are.' It's just a basic part of our values system."

When Florida was named the number one party school last year, university officials may not have embraced the title quite as much, but that didn't mean the rankings were not taken seriously. Though binge drinking has declined at Florida of late, the number one ranking last year may have been representative of the university's long struggle with alcohol on campus.

Florida has often made headlines for its party school image, which it has been working to fight over the past couple of years. After four students died in president Bernie Machen's first two years at the helm, he outlined concrete steps to cut down on alcohol on campus by instituting a mandatory alcohol education course for students and a prohibiting alcohol advertisements on campus. More recently, Machen has sought to ban liquor at a traditional drinking venue during the weekend of a Florida football game against its rival, Georgia.

"Certainly, receiving a ranking like this, as an administrator or health or professional staff, certainly we're not happy to see," Miller said. "The take-home point is yes, it's a reminder that we need to continue with our efforts."

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