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When I first reported to the University of Missouri, the first thing I heard was that it had been designated the nation’s top party school by respected authorities in the field. I’m not sure anybody knew who those authorities were, but it didn’t matter; we wanted to believe so we did. In the same vein, everyone believed Jim Lowe’s "Green Door" was inspired by a notorious Mizzou dive called the Shack. The Shack’s door wasn’t even green—but word was they’d painted it after the song came out to deflect notoriety.
It wasn’t true. And I bet schools across America believed the same thing about their own legendary dives—the taunting dumps where a freshman could say Joe sent me and a sneering voice from within would tell him to beat it. The keys to the universe were not yet in your hands, but everybody but you was having one hell of a good time. For this, after all, was the school—whichever school it happened to be—named America’s number one party school by some sort of official decree.
These days there actually is a decree that’s as official as these things get. This week the Princeton Review came out with the 2016 edition of The Best 380 Colleges, its annual ranking of American colleges and universities in 62 different categories. Only one interests the media. “Most beautiful campus” and “best campus food” don’t make headlines. "Top party schools" does. And this year our very own University of Illinois leads the list.
Really, it’s an honor. As 2016 title holders, the Illini are expected to reign—I guess that’s the right word—over all the nation’s hard-partying collegians for the next school year. We must hope Illinois makes the most of its opportunity, because it’s not likely to come again anytime soon.
The Princeton Review says it bases its rankings on a survey of 136,000 students who are asked a total of 80 questions. As explained by the Review, the questions pertaining to partying—and to the opposite ranking of top "stone-cold sober schools"— sound almost primitive:
Both lists are based on students' answers to survey questions concerning: the use of alcohol and drugs at their school, the number of hours they study each day outside of class time and the popularity of fraternities/sororities at their school. Schools on the "Party Schools" list are those at which surveyed students' answers indicated a combination of low personal daily study hours (outside of class), high usages of alcohol and drugs on campus and high popularity on campus for frats/sororities.
In other words, Greeks with time on their hands equals nonstop bacchanalia. I’m reading Moneyball at the moment, and the Princeton Review’s methods remind me of the rule of thumb of the old-time baseball scouts: the kid who looks like a ballplayer is a ballplayer. Billy Beane, Bill James, and sabermetrics put a stop to that nonsense, and now we see more advanced methodologies being turned on college carousing. The Princeton Review is the best known but by no means the only judge of party schools, and two years ago the site BroBible.com claimed to "cut through the madness" with a more scientific approach it called the BroBible Party School Index.
BroBible thought it was being funny, but it was on to something. The science it employed was what we might call the science of illusion. BroBible collated the results of other rankings—Princeton Review, Playboy, Newsweek—added points to schools with strong football and basketball teams, since "it’s a given" that those schools "party harder than most," and added more points for "general partying reputation." Its insight was to recognize that what matters isn't how hard students actually party but how hard they think they party (or think everyone but them parties)—which is something we would have realized back at Missouri if we’d had an ounce of self-awareness.
As for the Illini, they’d better get used fast to the idea of being America’s top party animals, because when the title’s gone it’s gone. The Princeton Review’s been naming a top party school since 1992, and it got off to a slow start, giving the honor to the University of Rhode Island in 1993, ’94, and ’95. But in this century no school’s won it back-to-back, and no school’s even won it twice except for West Virginia in 2007 and 2012.
That’s as it should be. In a way, it’s a lifelong title. Upperclassmen won’t be telling frosh, "You know, the Princeton Review called us the nation’s top party school" just for the next school year. They’ll be saying it forever.