The Preppy Handbook's Lisa Birnbach Tells Everything You Really Wanted to Know About 186 U.S. Colleges
First came The Official Preppy Handbook, a publishing and cultural phenomenon that sold 1.4 million copies and untold numbers of penny loafers. Now, four years later, author Lisa Birnbach, 27, is back with Lisa Birnbach's College Book (Ballantine, $9.95), an opinionated guide to life on 186 U.S. college campuses. In addition to a brief profile of each college, Birnbach lists each campus' best profs, classes, pizza hangouts, drinking games and frats, as well as its most famous alums. There is also a handy Put-Out Chart (a fancy dinner, Birnbach reports, gets a guy to second base in the Big Ten), a calendar of great events in collegiate history (February 1957: Smith-Corona introduces its portable typewriter) and brief essays, including Fear and Loafers: The Perilous Fate of the Liberal Arts. "I don't think any of the the campus profiles are dull," says Birnbach, who researched the book by sending out more than 5,000 nine-page questionnaires, interviewing deans, school-newspaper editors, ordinary students and frat rats, and by visiting each campus for at least a day. If nothing else, says Birnbach of her 515-page effort, "It certainly weighs more than any book I've worked on."
Birnbach (Brown, '78) lives in Manhattan and takes great pride in the fact that boxing promoter Don King once spotted her at a party and said, "Hello. I love you. What is your name?" For this story, she talked with associate editor Cutler Durkee (Berkeley, '77).
Where can you get a very good education at a bargain price?
One good choice would be Rice University, in Houston. For an excellent private school—and I really do think it's excellent—the tuition, $3,900, is a very good deal compared to the competition. For example, Wesleyan, in Connecticut, costs $9,250 and the University of Chicago is $8,685. Rice has a bumper sticker that reads "I go to Rice—I must be smart!"
Who's got the nicest campus?
Classic Ivy League? Princeton. In terms of a pretty, sealed-off community, Kenyon, in Ohio, or the University of Montana, in Missoula, which is in a little valley—the most gorgeous setting I've seen, like Switzerland. For a fun college-town atmosphere, try the University of Texas, in Austin, or the University of Colorado, in Boulder. Boulder is a recreational paradise. Students call the school Shangri-la U.
Where should a guy go if he wants to be outnumbered by women?
Sarah Lawrence, Bennington, Vassar—any of the women's schools that went co-ed in the late '60s. But perhaps the ultimate is to be an exchange student at Wellesley or Smith, women's colleges that accept a handful of visiting male students from some neighboring schools.
How about for a woman who wants to meet men?
If she wants to be overwhelmed by guys with no tans, who wear Casio wristwatches and matching calculators, then she might do very, very well to go to Caltech. They're so eager to enroll women—only a fraction of the 900 students are women—that they will pay for any accepted female to fly out and look at the campus. They'll even toss in a slide rule and a couple of isosceles triangles.
Where's the best frat and sorority life?
USC's Greeks—whose slogan is "Go Greek or don't go"—are probably the richest. If you go up to Fraternity Row you'll think you've entered a foreign-car theme park. The Greek system is also especially strong at Mississippi, Indiana, Oklahoma and Illinois.
Bennington, a small private school in Vermont. Room, board and tuition cost $14,640 per year. For that money you get a beautiful school, classy teachers—Bernard Malamud and Joe McGinniss are currently on the faculty—and the best food I encountered. One student figured his lectures were costing his parents $150 an hour.
Where would a gay student feel most comfortable?
He or she would probably have the easiest time at an Ivy League school, because the intellectual atmosphere fosters tolerance. Also, New York University, the University of Wisconsin or Antioch, in Ohio. One place homosexuals do not want to go is Oral Roberts.
Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa, was founded by Oral Roberts Himself—I like to capitalize the "H"—and of course it considers homosexuality an abomination. This is a school where you're not encouraged to do your own thing, or even find out what your own thing is. Sex, smoking and on-campus dances are also verboten.
Where's the place for football fanatics?
Nebraska, Ohio State or Baylor, whose homecoming is sold out a year in advance. And, of course, Texas A&M, where students stand throughout each football game to show their support for the team.
At what school are the students most promiscuous?
Well, maybe the students at Boston University were just more candid with me—or maybe it really is a school of a different virtue.
What's your favorite state university?
How about five, in alphabetical order? Cal, Michigan, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.
You used a great deal of current slang in your book. What's hip, or at least borderline hip?
"Face time" is the time you spend seeing and being seen; you want to maximize face time. "Air mail" is what you get when you look in your post-office box and find nothing. At the Citadel, in South Carolina, your girlfriend is your "OAO," or "one and only." At some Eastern schools the term "Euro-fag" has cropped up. A Eurofag is not necessarily European or homosexual, but he does have to wear leather clothes and drink tea from a glass.
So what are college kids doing for fun nowadays?
At Elmira College, in New York, during the bleakest months of winter, some students go around with bottles of Peppermint Schnapps plastered—literally, with plaster and gauze—to one hand. This is, presumably, so that relief will always be nearby. One of my favorite discoveries was cow-tipping, a traditional if unofficial requirement at most schools. Students, preferably after hoisting a few beers, go out into a field at night and find a cow. Cows, of course, sleep standing up. The students gently push the cow's behind, then run. Which is just as well, because what you get, after the cow falls down, is a very angry cow.
Any other pastimes?
Drinking games are, of course, a very popular divertissement. My favorite is called Hi Bob, which involves gathering a bunch of friends to watch reruns of The Bob Newhart Show. Rules vary from school to school, but basically what happens is that you pass around a mug of beer from which everyone drinks. Whenever anyone on the show says "Hi Bob" the person holding the beer has to chug.
What were your impressions of college students in general?
The main thing is that students have become very security minded, concentrating on cashing in their college degrees. Interest in the liberal arts is declining while activity in economics, business and engineering is very high. One phenomenon I noticed is the growth of double majors, people who major in one practical subject and one somewhat whimsical subject. Economics-art history majors do exist. I encountered a lot of that.
How are things changing on the social and political fronts?
There's less talk about sex, and people seem to be interested in sex only in the context of a strong relationship. It's not so okay to have sex with a stranger you met at a fraternity party whose name may or may not be Rocky. People are graduating engaged, graduating married. Ronald Reagan would win on many campuses. Drug use is down, but not out. Cocaine is everywhere, and I'm still wondering how students can afford it.
What would be your advice to someone about to apply to college?
I'd say it's worth spending the extra time and money to visit as many schools as you think might interest you. They will not all feel alike. And I think it's good to spend a lot of time writing your application essay, because schools really do pay attention and because it forces you to learn about what motivates you. I'd also advise good students heading for a big state school to try to get into an honors program, so they'll have smaller classes. And I'd recommend that students not turn their backs on the liberal arts. Outside of that, just buy a good clock radio and learn to love coffee.
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