A conversation about Penn State being the top “Party School" in America may evoke some chuckles at the office water cooler or among high school seniors hoping to soon enter college life, but not everyone in Happy Valley is happy with that designation.

The Princeton Review survey of about 122,000 college students nationwide gave the title to Penn State, which climbed two spots from last year to dethrone the University of Florida. Many in the PSU family, including concerned parents, would much rather see that kind of shakedown in the rankings associated with football, and not with drinking prowess.

It's also not the kind of honor that pleases college administrators. Two years ago, West Virginia University's president, Michael Garrison, refused to give interviews after his school appeared on the Princeton list but said in a written statement that after talking with students, “their concerns are with their education ... with their futures."

Six years ago, the American Medical Association asked the Princeton Review to stop ranking the party schools.

“The Princeton Review should be ashamed to publish something for students and parents that fuels the false notion that alcohol is central to the college experience and that ignores the dangerous consequences of high-risk drinking," said Dr. Richard Yost, director of the AMA's Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse. “College binge drinking is a major public health issue and a source of numerous problems for institutions of higher learning."

Compounding Penn State's drinking culture image was the death last month of 18-year old Joseph Dado of Latrobe, who died of trauma after falling down a stairwell. His blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit for a 21-year-old to drive. The tragedy has spurred PSU student leaders to action. Luke Pierce, a senior and the president of Interfraternity Council, said fraternity members and alumni are meeting to look into risk management issues at parties.

“What can be born out of tragic events is very positive change to addressing the culture at Penn State," Pierce said.

Let's hope so.

Along with the top party schools, the Princeton Review also ranks the “Stone Cold Sober Schools," This list is dominated primarily by religious institutions and military schools.

Not surprisingly, Brigham Young University, a Mormon school, has topped this list for 12 straight years. This year's list has Wheaton College of Illinois second. Western Pennsylvania's Grove City College ranks fifth, while the U.S. Coast Guard Academy is sixth, the Air Force Academy seventh, the Naval Academy eighth and the U.S. Military Academy 14th.

At most colleges and universities, there is space for students who like to party and those who prefer to remain sober. The campus experience ultimately comes down to the students deciding for themselves.

Making wise choices at college will not only impact the immediate campus experience for students, but set them on a positive course for future success in the working world.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com