Party Schools

Henry David Abraham, M.D.

By Henry David Abraham, M.D. | If your son or daughter is among the lucky 43% of high school seniors choosing a college this spring, your teen is on the edge of one of life’s more important decisions. There are the usual suspects to consider: location, size, faculty, strengths of various departments. But for some kids it’s which school has the best parties. This may sound wacky, but the quality of social life offered by a college can make or break the deal. Some kids a hot party school over a great education. But any parent who is willing to shell out $50,000 a year for a party school is either clueless, or must want to get that kid out of the house really badly.

Google “party school” and you will get 13.7 million hits. This degree of Internet interest in party schools rivals the number of hits for motherhood (14.6 million), ahead of apple pie (6 million) and chocolate chip cookies (5.6 million), though roughly equal to alcohol abuse (12 million hits). The esteemed Princeton Review publishes a list of party schools. So does Playboy magazine. Party schools tend to be big universities with great football teams, lots of fraternities, and locations near ski slopes or beaches.

Beer companies, which market heavily to the college crowd, like party schools. The campaign of linking spectator sports to beer is a marketing coup d’état. Campuses are not excluded. A number of college sites are proud to say, “Win or lose, we booze.” Ironically, some kids may actually need to go to one, the athlete in financial need, for example, or the kid who needs the security blanket of a fraternity or sorority. A regular octane school may also be right for the kid who is not ready for a place where the main school sport is high octane academics.

There can be an unexpected cost to the party school. Playboy advises that you can tell you’ve gone to one when you tell someone you went there, and the first thing they ask is, “Did you graduate?” Dropping out is one risk. There are more. The Imperial Wizards of research on college alcohol use are Henry Wechsler at the Harvard School of Public Health and Ralph Hingson at Boston University. Over the last two decades their teams have mounted a breathtaking series of studies of college drinking spanning 50,000 students and 120 colleges. Here is what they found.

Two million students a year are likely to drive under the influence. About 25 percent of college students report academic consequences of their drinking, including missing class, falling behind, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall. More than 150,000 students a year develop an alcohol-related health problem, while about one in a hundred say they tried to kill themselves while drinking or drugging. A half million kids will be injured due to alcohol, and 600,000 will be assaulted by a college drinker. More than 97,000 will be victims of sexual assault. 1,700 will die from alcohol related accidents.

Too much of a downer? Let’s get the party animals’ take on college drinking. One of my favorites is a site on the ‘net that tells you how to throw a keg party ( There is advice on trying to hide the party from the police, preventing theft and damage using padlocks, keeping a Taser handy for the rowdy, and not allowing any celebrants onto the roof, since , falling is “the #1 cause of alcohol related party deaths.” Sounds like fun to me. Pro or con, it may be handy to know a party school when you see one. Here’s what you can do.

No. 1: Visit the place. If your student guide winks and tells you he drove a beer truck for a job that summer, be grateful. He’s telling you something important. This guy is considered representative of the student body by the college administration. Friday is a good day to visit. If the college parties on Thursday nights, it means that partying has spread from the usual Friday-Saturday bashes and invaded prime time. Look around campus for telltale signs of the prior night’s activities- bottles, cans, kegs, puke, and that lingering beery smell of unbridled youth whose campus administration holds its nose and looks the other way.

No. 2: Do a fraternity count. Include sororities and ones off campus. Then calculate a fraternity to student ratio for each of the schools you’re looking at. A highly ranked party school, according to the Princeton Review, is the University of Florida in Gainesville. It has 46,000 students and 62 fraternities. Then there’s Haverford College in Pennsylvania, with 1,168 students and no fraternities. Haverford is not a party school. (It is also not easy to get into, as I can attest from personal experience.)

No. 3: Look for a national collegiate champion of Something Big. This means Div. 1 schools. Football is the biggie, but basketball counts. Any school that has more graduates playing in the NFL than it has Nobel laureates or great novelists on its faculty should raise a blip on your radar. Also, any school that gives its players cars, pays its coaches a multiple of what it pays its professors, or has a stadium that seats more than 75,000 people is in the entertainment business, not the business of education.

If you toss the Princeton Review of party schools, what‘s left? I asked Robert Putnam, who spent his career teaching at Harvard, how he’d choose a college. Not everyone goes to Harvard, or to college, for that matter. His idea is a shoe that fits a lot of feet taking the next step after high school. If it’s college, forget making a choice based on location, size, endowment and the like. What matter the most are the personal qualities that each kid brings to the campus. The best education comes from swimming in a sea of curious, creative students who are tickled to death to be there. The passions of roommates, brothers, sisters, and team mates are infectious. They teach lessons for a lifetime. It makes sense to choose wisely.


Dr. Henry David Abraham is a psychiatrist in Lexington MA. He has held teaching positions at Brown, Harvard and Tufts Universities, and has treated patients and their families since 1974. In 1985 he shared in the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with Physicians for Social Responsibility and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. He is the author of “What’s a Parent to Do? Straight Talk on Drugs and Alcohol,” New Horizon Press. Dr. Abraham is writing a book for teens, “The No BS Book on Drugs and Alcohol.”




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