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Exposing the Myths of "Party School" Rankings of College Campuses

Health, Safety, and Well-being Alcohol and Other Drug Senior Level
January 6, 2020 Jason Kilmer, Ph.D. Jeff Linkenbach Christine Lee

All over America, college-bound high school seniors are deciding where they want to be when a new academic year starts in the fall.  They sift input from friends, parents, and guidance counselors to help narrow choices to a handful of schools.

Another influence in that mix, for better or worse, are “best of” rankings, which have proliferated in the last 20 years. While some of these lists have pragmatic value, others fly in the face of campus prevention efforts.

For example, the Princeton Review’s “Best 385 Colleges: 2020 Edition,” released in August, includes 62 different rankings. Four of these are a disservice to students and colleges alike. They include Top 20 lists for “Lots of Beer,” “Lots of Hard Liquor,” “Reefer Madness” and an overall “Party Schools” ranking. 

Why does this matter?  Because perceptions influence behavior.

When students think “everyone” drinks or “everyone” uses marijuana, they are more likely to initiate use or increase use. 

As scientists who conduct research and develop programs in the prevention field, we are dedicated to the health, wellness, and success of students on college campuses. We also are committed to promoting accurate norms. 

A significant risk factor associated with college students’ substance-use behavior and associated problems is their perceived norms about what peers on campus are doing with alcohol and marijuana. When students think “everyone” drinks or “everyone” uses marijuana, they are more likely to initiate use or increase use

The lists at Princeton Review were generated by asking students to complete opinion surveys.  The surveys have a single query for each type of substance. “How widely is (beer/hard liquor/marijuana) used at your school?” The schools with the highest perceived estimates made the top 20.

Unfortunately, a methodology that asks about perceptions, without comparing to actual behaviors, is hugely flawed – or, at least, omitting crucial context. And even if the publications’ intentions are playful, lists like these can promote negative risky behavior and adversely affect students’ health and decisions. 

Decades of research have shown that people often grossly overestimate the rates that other people engage in drinking and other drug use.  The biggest misperception usually comes from those who use most heavily themselves, as they may tend to party with people similar to themselves and then generalize their behavior to others. Fueling these myths of substance misuse promotes high-risk behavior at the expense of students’ health and well-being, and should be addressed. 

The very big downside to top party/drinking/marijuana campus lists like this is their potential to create or contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially when there’s pressure to fit in at a “top” party school, which may promote heavy drinking or marijuana use.

There also can be pressure on students who don’t use substances to experiment because of cultural and normative beliefs that are sustained by each new incoming class and by lists like these.   

What can campuses do? We encourage college campuses to cultivate positive norms by measuring actual rates of substance use on a continual basis by surveying college students about actual behavior, not by narrowly asking about perceptions of peers’ behavior.  Further, we encourage widespread sharing of the facts about alcohol and marijuana. 

Such actions generate hope by producing positive outcomes in college cultures.

As teens and young adults are making milestone decisions about their future, we want to equip them with the most accurate information to help guide their decisions.  We encourage companies that generate rankings and lists to be cautious of perpetuating myths around alcohol and marijuana use, to pursue data that accurately informs individuals about the behavior of the student body (not the perceptions of a selected few), and to be consistent with colleges’ efforts in promoting health and success.