Animal House on Steroids

Recently, David Warner, a colleague in our department at Washington State University, was severely beaten outside an off-campus bar. While the facts are still unclear, the police have indicated that drinking was most likely involved. The incident was among countless acts of violence and violation perpetrated on and around college campuses in recent weeks, all by-products of a culture of excess that celebrates intoxication. At Washington State, we have seen a semester in which police officers reported that alcohol played a role in three students’ falling from buildings and another student’s death, from alcohol poisoning. Such events are a tragic reminder of the costs of America’s collegiate party culture—which parents and administrators often lament, but which the structure of higher education tacitly endorses.

Of course, collegiate partying is nothing new. It is the stuff of local legend and school tradition, woven into the mythos of American life.  For years, higher education has served as a rite of passage for young men and (increasingly) women, a time between childhood and adulthood in which essential skills, secret knowledge, and transformative experience prepare them for new roles and responsibilities in society. Important, this phase of the (upper- and middle-class) life cycle long has coupled the seriousness of education and the practicality of career preparation with the freedoms, experiments, and indulgences of social life. And academic leaders and student-life professionals have sought to counter the abuses and excesses associated with the latter to advance the former.

Increasingly over the past two or three decades, however, that balance has begun to break down, as universities have begun to actively contribute to a new formula that often embraces entitlement and indulgence over learning and hard work.

Along with the media, which celebrate collegiate party culture and regularly issue lists of “the best party schools,” institutions also promote an atmosphere the puts fun and experience ahead of academics and learning. In an era of increasing tuition and shrinking job prospects, universities can no longer promise a certain path to the American Dream.  In light of the continuing structural realignments, party culture provides some students with more compelling reasons to fork over thousands of dollars. In their new book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, the sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton concluded that America’s universities use the “party pathway” to lure upper-middle-class students onto campus. “At the heart of the party pathway was a powerful Greek system, a residence-hall system that fed students into the party scene, and numerous ‘easy, majors,” they write, describing their research in The Chronicle. “As the most visible and well-resourced route through the institution, the party pathway was impossible to avoid—even by those who wished to.” 

According to the economist Richard K. Vedder, the priorities of institutions are evident in their investments. Commenting on a recent report by the Delta Cost Project that showed that colleges pay a declining share of their budgets on academics, he noted: “This is the country-clubization of the American university. A lot of it is for great athletic centers and spectacular student-union buildings. In the zeal to get students, they are going after them on the basis of recreational amenities.” Leisure, consumption, comfort, and pleasure have become the means to attract students, and the university has turned into a yearlong party. Attending sporting events and concerts, winterfests and spring flings, every undergraduate can go on to earn a postmodern Ph.D.—Party Hard Degree.

This recalibration of priorities helps make sense of the high rates of alcohol consumption (80 percent) and binge drinking (50 percent) on campuses today. It explains the increasing popularity of drinking games, which a recent study in Addictive Behaviors finds are becoming more and more serious (some 30 percent of students studied report memory loss after playing the games).

It also contributes to a culture in which so many students treat the faculty and staff with a sense of entitlement and often pronounced disrespect. At best, faculty members become a combination of cruise director, customer-service agent, and concierge, whose role on campus is to provide students with the most amount of fun. At worst, the faculty is an impediment and obstacle to the primary goal of parties, drinking, sports, theme weekends, and more parties. In the end, this is a large part of what the university has sold to them, complete with the party-hard experience that many of them are paying for above all else.
The consequences for students are also significant. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, each year an average of 1,825 college students between 18 and 24 years of age die as a result of alcohol-related, unintentional injuries; almost 600,000 students experience injuries while under the influence of alcohol. More than 97,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

Drunken parties aren’t featured in any college brochure or recruitment mailing. But they are part of the environment that colleges have helped to create through their investments and priorities. Today’s campus parties can go far beyond anything the fictional Animal House fraternity spoofed in the 1978 movie. They are Animal House on steroids, and they shine a stark light on the current moment and the need to challenge higher education’s embrace of excess and entitlement in the search to expand enrollment.

David J. Leonard is an associate professor and chair of the department of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University. C. Richard King is a professor in the department.

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