The COVID-19 College Party Scene: Who’s To Blame?

In the midst of the pandemic, the traditional “party scene” connotation of college has created a very dangerous case of FOMO among returning students.


Manasa Gudavalli

New students are experiencing NYU a bit differently from what many imagined. Nonetheless, these could be the alternatives to the party culture that threaten to worsen COVID numbers on our campus. (Staff Photo by Manasa Gudavalli)

Bianca de Ayala, Deputy Opinion Editor

Though it is meant to be a time of self-discovery and some of our most formative years, college is often advertised as a four-year hedonistic getaway. College ranking websites have a category labeled “party scene” for a reason — movies such as “Animal House,” “Old School,” “Spring Breakers,” “Everybody Wants Some!!” and “The House Bunny” all depict crazy college parties.

“These are the best years of your life” is the message almost any college student is accustomed to hearing. College counselors at my small high school drilled this into us with every college prep talk. Alumni came to speak about their college experiences and to advise on the application process. The same message was repeated frequently, especially near the end of senior year.

It became a beacon of light as exams grew tedious and morale weakened. Work hard now and college will be a refreshing break. Yet, when I arrived at NYU, my experience was much different. I went to a few on-campus events, but it didn’t consume my college career as expected. Instead, I discovered a variety of alternative experiences: eating late-night pizza with roommates, going to art shows and plays, working events with amazing co-workers, sitting at the park to draw and studying at cafes.

But the greatest change came when I wasn’t even at NYU. Having learned how to be independent on campus, I created my own experiences by exploring my home city and traveling. I’ve learned more than my high school self could’ve ever predicted. Graduation isn’t the end of my path. It is an opportunity to learn more about myself than ever before. Coronavirus called, it’s letting you know that college doesn’t have to be your peak.

This isn’t to say that partying, sex or alcohol isn’t fun. It would be hypocritical of me to say I didn’t indulge in at least one of these things during college. The pandemic has revealed how important college party culture is for students. Still, students should know that they can take this opportunity to explore or appreciate different aspects of college that are more COVID-friendly. For example, enjoying a social-distanced hang out on the grass, having virtual movie nights (or with a small bubble of people) or working on long-postponed projects and hobbies.

Unfortunately, these activities are not what is advertised. What is more worrisome is that this is the product of generational and societal expectations instilled through popular media. Students are surrounded by media that glamorizes the carefree, sexually aggressive, beer-chugging frat-boy and sexualizes loose, easy college women. There is an intense pressure to mark off the college checklist and pursue token college experiences before graduation — and now, before a COVID-19 vaccine. Students are baited by the media into living out this college party fantasy.

Media often paints college as a four-year rager and it seems like some students are still determined to see that through. The University of Alabama, the king of party rankings, boasts 1367 COVID-19 cases as of Sept. 3 — more than doubling the 568 cases it had on Aug. 26. The university began classes Aug. 19. While many have criticized students for not following CDC protocols — and students do hold responsibility –– it is also naive for colleges to expect students who have had college advertised to them as a party venue for years to abstain from what the media has told them is the full college experience. College administrators are foolish to believe that students who have been told that college is a four-year party will obey social distancing regulations.

Thanks to societal promises that a bachelor’s degree is key to securing a comfortable salary, not everyone goes to college because they want to learn. According to a study by Niznik Behavioral Health, about 27 percent of polled college students attend college with the intention to party. Despite pleas from colleges, these same students are clearly trying to get their money’s worth, to the point where some have been suspended for partying. With a significant percentage of students going to college to party, it is reasonable to assume that many students would break social distancing protocol to obtain that experience. Otherwise, what’s the point of them going back to school at all? 

Students can be responsible. They just need to be assured that college is not meant to just be a party, so they aren’t missing out on their college experience because of social distancing this year. While it is hard to experience college virtually, critical moments of college can be experienced safely during the pandemic. The true beauty of college is in the friendships we form and how we grow as individuals, not the amount of time we spend partying. It is already known that social media can be deceptive and is persuasive in manipulating our perspectives. Just as there have been calls to dismantle once-praised unhealthy expectations and lifestyles, students ought to debunk this predatory, unrealistic portrayal of college. Students have power in what they post and how they influence their peers. Additionally, by protesting the college image as students, the media will have to notice. It is time for the media to realize the harm of this image and to reconsider how they portray the college experience.

Email Bianca de Ayala at [email protected]