More Bogus College Stereotypes

Are Reed students junkies? Does Smith turn girls lesbian? In part two of a series, Kathleen Kingsbury investigates eight more college reputations and finds out which ones are off the mark.

07.26.09 11:11 PM ET

Oberlin is All Hippies

Oberlin College is so liberal even its College Republicans don’t like Sarah Palin. “I may hate Obama," says sophomore Cara Lawler, “but I couldn’t bring myself to vote for McCain because Palin just scares me.”

Yet, for a place that’s often regarded as one big drum circle, Oberlin students can be quite conservative when it comes to tolerating differences. Lawler, who could hardly be called a right-winger—she hails from San Francisco, isn’t a practicing Christian and aspires to be a sex therapist—has often had vitriol spewed at her during her two years at Oberlin. “People have called me names, acted as though I could never be feminist enough,” she says. “Being politically correct is absolutely paramount, and it can suppress critical thinking.”

College Republicans first came to Oberlin’s campus in 1982, perhaps due to then-President Ronald Reagan’s popularity. But the club petered out by the early ‘90s, leaving the school with no organized conservative voice for a decade. It was resurrected in 2005 but remains unsurprisingly marginalized. As even admissions officer Charles Grim wrote on a school blog last May, “As you probably know, Oberlin College has a largely deserved reputation as being a very liberal college.”

For her part, Lawler has decided to transfer from the Ohio school to San Francisco State, where she hopes campus life will be more welcoming of her viewpoints. “A friend once told me another student said of me, ‘Oh, I am so glad she’s here so we have the chance to re-educate her,’” Lawler says.

Miami Students Never Stop Partying

“When you combine weather and women, no city in the country is hotter than Miami,” writes Playboy, which this year ranked the University of Miami as the country’s No. 1 party school in its authoritative guide. Indeed, beautiful beaches and gorgeous people have long lured bacchanalia seekers to this private Coral Gables university.

This is the first year Miami has earned Playboy’s prime spot. (Cal State-Chico, Arizona State, and the University of Wisconsin have all topped the list, and San Diego State is the only campus to crack the top 10 on all four rankings Playboy has done since 1987.) And unsurprisingly, not everyone at Miami is convinced the school deserves these new bragging rights. There were the folks that trumpet Miami’s 12-to-1 student-faculty ratio and cutting-edge research capabilities. Even Playboy concedes, “While its academics are in no way close to those of the Ivy League, you can get a great education here without skimping on fun.”

“It’s sort of misleading—we aren’t a conventional party school like [University of] Florida or Florida State,” says one recent grad of Suntan U., as Miami is sometimes called. “Most people just hit up the clubs on South Beach until all hours.” Or as sophomore Lolisa Wallace put it to the Miami Herald, “We rarely have parties on campus. We just go to ones that are more exclusive.”

Smith Turns Girls Into Lesbians

About one in six college-aged women report that they’ve had a same-sex encounter, according to a 2002 nationwide survey of about 13,000 Americans done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet, along with other all-women colleges like Wellesley and Bryn Mawr, Smith has always been singled out for instilling in its students a Sapphic sense of desire.

Not that Smithies have much of a problem with the reputation. In May 2008, students shut down a speech given by an anti-gay activist sponsored by the College Republicans when dozens of women stormed the hall shouting, “We're here, we're queer, get used to it!” Plus, all the cool kids on campus—known as BDOCs, or Big Dyke On Campus—tend to be gay. “[When] you have a pretty isolated campus and don’t see men regularly, it makes you naturally a little more open to experimenting,” says a member of the Class of 2000. “People find themselves, 6 months in, sexually frustrated and in an environment that doesn't bat an eye if you suddenly shave your head and start dating your roommate. Throw some alcohol into the mix and everyone's doing it.”

She estimates that, by the end of her sophomore year, there was only one girl on her hall that hadn’t at least tried hooking up with another girl, but none would have actually identified as a lesbian. “When you get back out into the real world, you realize it's a little different, and people tend to revert back to how they were pre-Smith.”

Chicago Students Are Boring

Where fun comes to die. The circle of hell Dante forgot. Where the only thing that goes down on you is your GPA. None of these are official mottos, but visit the University of Chicago and you’re certain to see each one of them emblazoned on a student’s t-shirt.

U. of C. students take their studies seriously, and it’s this devotion to scholarship that fuels the school’s reputation as a place of soul-crushing drudgery. Undergrads must complete a rigorous core curriculum, one that emphasizes literary and historical texts. And while the campus does have fraternities and sororities, “the one thing that is arguably boring about a typical Chicago student is his or her taste for partying, or lack thereof,” says a recent grad. “I think Chicago students take a lot fewer risks in their drinking, drug-taking and sexual behavior than the average 18-to-22-year-old.”

Then again, boring is relative. Chicago may not be competing for the title of #1 Party School, but the campus is proud to host what is perhaps the world’s largest scavenger hunt each May. Items to collect this spring included an arrest warrant, a marshmallow pillow, two life-sized mannequins and a homemade vending machine. Of his schoolmates, the former student adds, “They are offbeat and some are quite weird, but actually that makes them a lot less boring than the conformists at other schools.”

Georgetown Is So Catholic

To some Catholics, Georgetown’s founding order, the Jesuits, are so liberal in their theology they may as well be pagans. But at its heart, this is a Catholic university (America’s oldest) and visitors are quick to realize that. Consider the crucifixes that adorn most classrooms, the theology requirement, and the parking spaces that read “Jesuit Parking Only.” Plus, as exacted by Catholic doctrine, stores on Georgetown property can’t sell condoms. Never mind the drunken students who seem to knock down the campus menorah every few Hanukkahs.

It’s enough to make any non-Catholic applicant wary. “There are definitely students who choose not to go there because it freaks their parents out when they go to visit and see crosses everywhere,” says Joan Herskovits, whose daughter, Jill, is a 2008 Georgetown alum.

Jill, who grew up in Atlanta, had also written off the school as “too Catholic” until her high school guidance counselor urged her to reconsider. What she and her parents found both on their initial visit and in her four years there, however, was a diverse campus with an active Hillel—about 15% of the student body is Jewish—and a full-time Muslim chaplain. Jill filled her theology credits with “Problem of God,” a survey of world religions, and a Jewish Studies course. “It was probably the best four years of her life,” says her mother Joan, who now counsels other hesitant prospective Jewish parents. “She’d go back tomorrow if she could.”

SMU Is All Millionaires

Obviously this is one reputation that is not true—more than 70% of Southern Methodist University’s undergrads receive financial aid. And yet one of the more popular nicknames for this Dallas campus is “Southern Millionaires University.”

One reason is SMU’s price tag, which runs about $43,000 a year, making the private university one of the most expensive in Texas. Another is its setting in what is perhaps Dallas’s most affluent neighborhood, Highland Park, where the annual median household income is $150,000.

But no matter the reason, at least one school administrator thinks SMU’s rep as a playground for the privileged turns off minority applicants. "It's expensive here. A student may get a nice financial aid package the first year, but it goes down during the junior year," Fernando Salazar, coordinator of Hispanic services at SMU, told the campus newspaper in 2007. "Some [low-income] students ask, 'Do I see myself here? Do I feel comfortable here?'"

Everyone at Reed Is a Junkie

Even Reed College’s campus bookstore sells sweatshirts and mugs emblazoned with the school’s unofficial creed: “Communism, Atheism, Free Love.” But long linked to the liberal-mindedness of Reed’s student body has been a laissez-faire attitude toward illegal drugs on the Portland, Oregon campus.

But do Reed students really experiment more than your average college freshman? It’s a question that has ruffled some feathers there in recent years. First, in early 2008, the college settled a lawsuit with a former security guard who alleged he was fired for refusing to destroy evidence found in a campus apartment filled with needles, scales and other signs of heroin use. Then, a few months later, came the fatal heroin overdose of Alex Lluch, an 18-year-old freshman. After Lluch’s death, school officials disclosed that a second student, a female sophomore, had nearly died of an overdose the previous December. By that May, Willamette Week, a local alt-weekly, had written an explosive exposé documenting a rampant drug culture. Reed, the piece said, “is one of the last schools in the country where students enjoy almost unlimited freedom to experiment openly with drugs, with little or no hassles from authorities.”

School administrators downplay this accusation. “In some instances, Reed approaches drug and alcohol abuse from a medical perspective, believing that substance abuse is often the manifestation of a more deeply rooted clinical condition,” Reed spokesman Kevin Myers acknowledged in an email. But, Myers added, “Reed does not condone drug use; we are less concerned with how our approach plays in the media than we are about the health and safety of our students.”

Villanova Is So White and Preppy

“Basically everyone at this campus is out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.” That’s how one sophomore described Villanova University to the 2007 Insider’s Guide to the Colleges. Another chimed in, “I guess you could say that most of the people here have a lot of money because they come from New Jersey and drive BMWs.”

Nearly every elite East Coast college has suffered the label “white and preppy” at one time or another, but at Villanova, “the stereotypes from within our community are desperately crippling,” says rising senior Rebecca Masinde, a Kenyan student. The label is especially ironic—the Catholic school was established by the Augustinian order in 1842 to educate the children of the recent immigrants who serviced the nearby mansions on Philadelphia’s Main Line. Today, the student body’s homogeneity is a constant complaint, and looking strictly at the numbers, it’s an accurate one. Three-quarters of Villanova’s students are Catholic, and only about 20% come from underrepresented minorities, such as Asians and blacks.

Still, diversity is not limited to Villanova’s nationally renowned basketball squad. The portion of minority students has doubled over the last ten years, and each of the past four freshman classes has been at least one-fifth minority students. “We believe that diversity can only strengthen academics on campus,” says Steve Merritt, Villanova’s dean of enrollment management. “So we’ve been actively recruiting underrepresented students and committing more financial aid.”

Kathleen Kingsbury is a writer based in New York. She's a contributor to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health and education since 2005.