Overton: The party-school myth

BY JON OVERTON | AUGUST 30, 2013 5:00 AM

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The only thing more annoying than telling people I live in Iowa and waiting for them to ask if I’m a farmer is telling people I go to the University of Iowa and waiting for a remark that it’s a big party school. Forget academics; we’re so busy getting wasted that such frivolous things don’t matter.

But I don’t blame people for thinking that. It’s what we’re continually told — like when the Princeton Review announced that the UI is the nation’s No. 1 party school. We have a drinking problem, and it’s worse than that at most other colleges. But this report from the Princeton Review is grade A malarkey.

It rests entirely on a few survey questions that ask students about drinking and drug use. It’s no wonder some students think drug and alcohol use is so high when dozens of bars are clustered together in the heart of downtown, attracting hordes of students who get drunk as hell and then meander back to the dorms and apartments in the early morning, often leaving trails of vomit in their wake.

Scientifically collecting survey data on drinking and partying may be useful, but the Princeton Review’s survey fails to do that.

Students actively seek out and take the survey. Certain people have more desire to find the survey and respond than others, skewing the results.

Students are also bad judges of each other’s habits. The spring 2013 National College Health Assessment found that while 29 percent of survey respondents at the UI used marijuana in the past 30 days, students believed that nearly 78 percent have.

We assume that marijuana is used at more than twice the rate that it actually is. Think our perceptions on alcohol use might be a little off, too?

In spite of the UI’s infamous reputation and ranking, the National College Health Assessment shows that drunken decadence runs amok at the UI much less than in past years. Since 2009, the percentage of UI students who drank alcohol in the past 30 days has fallen by 10 percent, the number of drinks consumed per party is down around 20 percent, and the percentage of students who report risky drinking within the past two weeks dropped by approximately 12 percent.

Even Iowa State University students had a higher rate of alcohol-related arrests than their mortal enemies at the UI, according to a report from the state Board of Regents released in March.

The UI is hardly the party-school mecca by most real measures. Nevertheless, that reputation has been ingrained into popular opinion.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter if the UI is the top party school in the United States; what matters is that people think it is. If something is believed to be true, it is real in its consequences.

Serious students may hesitate to attend a university branded as the top party school, and the value of a degree from such an institution could be worth less to potential employers. Do not underestimate the power of stereotypes.

I don’t blame the Princeton Review for less flattering parts of the UI’s reputation, but by relying solely on students who are susceptible to stereotypes (as is everyone), it broadcasts a misleading caricature of a city and university with so much more to offer than partying.

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