By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
Think fun in college consists of chugging beer and getting lucky?
That's what you might take away from two recent college surveys on student social life.
The 20-something guys at CollegeHumor.com measure fun this way: bar closing hours, drug interest, the availability of free condoms, percent of girls in the student body, percent of girls in a relationship, percent of students in fraternities or sororities. (Michigan State and Indiana University rank first and second.) CollegeHumor's definitions are hardly surprising given the fact that the Web site's lifeblood appears to be photos and videos of babes, boobs and boys acting really stupid.
We might expect a more comprehensive definition of fun from the Princeton Review -- the same folks who sell all those college prep courses. But its "party school" designation of 20 schools, with the University of Texas as No. 1 and Penn State No. 2, is also based on the use of alcohol and drugs and the popularity of Greek life, as well as hours outside class spent studying (the lower the better, of course).
Alcohol and fraternities are present on almost all campuses, according to guide author Robert Franek. That makes comparisons easier and the term "party school" more quantifiable than, say, "fun school."
"What a student at Louisiana State University thinks is fun might be very different than what a student at Georgetown thinks," Franek says.
Just because a broader definition of fun is hard to come by doesn't mean it shouldn't be attempted. Fun might be tying one on and getting it on, but it also might be playing hacky sack or even organizing a protest.
Anastacia Cosner, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, helped push through a student referendum at Maryland last spring demanding that college authorities reduce penalties against marijuana users to those assessed on underage drinkers. She did this not because she's a stoner -- she doesn't use drugs, she says -- but because "I like bringing people together. It was fun."
Frederic D. Homer, a political philosophy professor, once led a class at the University of Wyoming through several discussions on the definition and character of fun.
Homer and graduate assistant Rodney Wambeam wanted to know what students meant when they said they were in college to have fun. They wanted to know why students rarely included classwork in that definition.
What they heard surprised them.
First of all, the students made a distinction between fun with no purpose and fun with a purpose. Fun with no purpose, said one student, was "kicking a soccer ball around with a friend for the first time and not paying attention to rules." It was, according to Wambeam, "mirthful diversion." Fun could have a purpose, the students said, as long as the purpose wasn't serious. So a game of intramural soccer with little at stake could be fun, but playing varsity soccer with the school's reputation on the line might not be.
The students parsed drinking and sex in similar fashion. Consumption of alcohol in small amounts could be fun, but binge drinking was not. Nor was indiscriminate sex. Such activities were a deliberate escape from the seriousness of college or perhaps a broken heart. They had a purpose -- and the potential for tragic consequences.
On many college campuses today you'll find administrators who think a lot about fun and how to provide it. It's no simple task, according to Jim Osteen, assistant vice president for student affairs at the University of Maryland.
Maryland has the dubious distinction of being the only local school on either list of fun schools: No. 14 in CollegeHumor's ranking and No. 20 on the Princeton Review party list. Nonetheless, Osteen says, more students than in the past are taking advantage of Maryland's diverse opportunities for fun.
"When I came to campus in '79, the drinking age was 18 and there were large, multi-keg socials all over campus," he says. "Those don't exist anymore."
Ken Schneck, assistant dean of student affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, a small coeducational school north of New York City, says campus activities can draw crowds if carefully planned in advance with students leading the way. One thing students look for in fun, he says, is novelty -- that's already been tested. They are eager to try something new, but more likely to actually participate if someone else already has, and enjoyed it. Thus a freshman might play "flip cup," a drinking game, because the sophomore next door tells her how much fun it is. But on the suggestion of the same friend, she might also go for the first time to a "dive-in movie" on campus in which a film is shown to students at an indoor swimming pool. Schneck says he spends a good bit of time trying to figure out what the underground buzz is on an upcoming event and, if necessary, urging student promoters to talk more about it or step up their advertising efforts.
Students also take pleasure in doing things that tie them to their campus. A close football game between rivals can excite even someone like Sarah Harbison, a sophomore at Michigan State University, who cheered with tens of thousands of other MSU fans last fall at a game against rival Notre Dame. "I don't know anything about football," she says, "but you live in the moment and you go for it."
Schneck at Sarah Lawrence says a monthly trip to Manhattan to see a play or other cultural event, accompanied by a faculty member who leads an after-show discussion, has become so popular that tickets are given out by lottery. Schneck and his colleagues have also been surprised by the number of students eager to learn about what earlier generations of students have done. Last year, for example, a lecture on previous commencements drew 50 students.
"I was expecting four or five," Schneck says.
At 29, Schneck is closer in age to the current crop of students than most deans, and has been observing students since he was a 19-year-old resident adviser at New York University. He believes outside assessments of party life on campus, like the Princeton Review's or CollegeHumor's, overestimate alcohol and drug use. Students are inclined to exaggerate their own consumption, he says, and believe that other students consume more than they do. Those who don't drink a lot, or don't smoke pot every weekend, are not exactly motivated to report that.
"You're never going to find a student who says 'I just had this great fun Friday night without substances and I want to go tell the world,' " he says.
CollegeHumor drew its data from several sources, including the Princeton Review and Facebook.com, where college students describe themselves and their friends. The Princeton Review relies on surveys filled out anonymously by students at 361 colleges and universities.
Franek acknowledges that the party-school designation doesn't capture the breadth of fun on campus. " 'Work hard, play hard' is still an appropriate description of college," he says, "but playing hard can be labeled as a lot of different things."
Students agree. Half the fun of drinking in college, some say, is because it might be illegal. In other words, fun sometimes can be a diversion tinged with risk. Their brains are wired to take risks; it's nature's way of getting them to leave home. What isn't fully developed yet are the connections in the brain that inhibit students from taking too much risk.
They experience a rush particularly when risking something with friends. Lee Burlison, a senior at George Washington University, was leading a student group on a hike through a storm in the Appalachian Mountains near the Pennsylvania border. As it grew dark, he could have stopped for the night but decided to push on. Around midnight, the travelers nearly got blown off the ridge by a vicious wind. It was scary and fun at the same time, he says.
Wellesley Baun, another GW senior, remembers going drinking with a girlfriend who liked to snatch liquor bottles from bars and hide them in the bushes outside. Baun would help her friend search for the stash the next day. It's not the vodka that sticks in her mind so much as participating in something that could have gotten her arrested, looking over her shoulder lest she and her girlfriend get caught.
The experience made for a great story and that, in the end, may be fun's most defining feature.
"You know you've had a good time," Baum says, "when you can go over the event with your friends the next day, or even years later. It's all about whether you have a story to tell."