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Are We Getting Sadder?

the princeton review and the pursuit of happiness

The Brown University brand boasts the prestige of the Ivy League, the innovation of the open curriculum, and phenomenal undergraduate access to research. The admissions office has an easy sell to prospective students: Our diploma carries a difficult-to-dispute degree of distinction. But when it comes down to selecting a school, branding is not everything.

Most of us can admit to spending an inordinate amount of time plumbing the depths of ranking and opinion aggregators like College Prowler and College Confidential. In hopes of attaining that glorious inside scoop on the student experience, maybe even before we stepped foot on campus, we scrutinized every online tidbit. Intangibles of student happiness—social life, quality of campus food, dorm comfort—factored into our decisions (as well they should have). Luckily for us, there was also the be-all and end-all in quantifying such subjectivity, the Princeton Review.

As a 2009 high school graduate, I was particularly drawn to Brown’s title as the nation’s “School with the Happiest Students,” in the 2010 Princeton Review. As many in the classes of 2013 and 2014 (Brown snagged the top spot in 2011, as well) report, it felt good to know our university was home to the greatest number of smiles per capita. If we were going to spend four years here, we wanted to enjoy them. Brown’s number one happiness ranking made more attractive ammunition for the admissions cannon.

When the 2012 rankings were released, another sign of the apocalypse emerged. We had dropped to a slovenly number three on the list, falling to Rice University and Clemson University. Sure, being in the top three is nice—but it’s in no way brag-worthy. No current Brown student is hollering the ranking from atop College Hill; no prospective Brown student is drooling over our bronze medal. Now, it’s just another statistic to skim over, another nod-worthy figure to put in a back pocket. Perhaps we can take solace in the fact that Stanford students (number four on the list) are marginally less happy than we are. To them I’ll offer a half-hearted, “Take that, palm trees.”

Of course, happiness is inherently subjective. As David Bowie asks in Labyrinth, “But what is your basis of comparison?”

With wonderful see-if-you-can-spot-the-difference flair, the Princeton Review notes on its website that “the Princeton Review college rankings are different from the Princeton Review college ratings.” In computing its rankings, the organization surveys upwards of 122,000 students from 376 colleges. In a straightforward manner, scores for each question, which address everything from social life to radio station to cafeteria food, are averaged and ordered. A given university’s “happy students” ranking is dependent on the surveyed students’ quantitative responses to the single question, “Overall, how happy are you?” Respondents choose one of the following: “I’m miserable,”  “I’m not that happy,”  “I’m happy,” “I’m very happy,” and “I love it here.”

This is actually a pretty good metric. The simple question cuts to the heart of the issue, and the numbers seem to be consistent. Since the same schools tend to appear in the top twenty each year, the question must be measuring some real dimension of variance between these colleges and the other 356 on the list. Presumably, the dimension here is student happiness—it is difficult to imagine the question is measuring anything else. We can therefore accept the survey and subsequent rankings as valid, but this prompts a scary question: Are we, as an entire student body, getting sadder? Or perhaps, is the Class of 2015 demonstrably less happy? Are other universities getting happier—or are they bringing aboard happier students?

Fumbling for an explanation, some immediate ideas come to mind. It is easy to suggest reasons for a decline in Brown student happiness: Ruth leaving, that awkward single-person card-swipe entrance at the Rock, Toledo shutting its doors. On a campus with drastically fewer pizza cones, maybe the drop in happiness is the result of an accumulation of supposed trivialities. But is there something number one and number two are doing that we are not?

Jennifer Setzler, an admissions counselor at South Carolina’s Clemson University (number two), offered her perspective on student happiness: “For us, it’s the Southern culture: we say hello, greet everyone, and stop in the middle of the road to direct everyone. People hold the door open for [prospective students] and take them downtown to get ice cream.”

Setzler later added, “I think that our location is also a reason for having such a happy group of students.  We are not in a big city and have gorgeous mountains nearby and a lake on campus and there’s always something for the students to do.  I also think that the students feel challenged, but not overwhelmed at Clemson.” Yet, theoretically (albeit pending confirmation), the mountains and the lake—and even the stress level and the ice cream—have been constants in Clemson’s happiness equation, so this speaks toward a decline in Brown student happiness.

Rice University—the three-time top dog in “Quality of Life” and, most recently, the cream of the crop in happy students—is a medium-sized private college in Houston, Texas. Though the newest frontrunner declined to comment, Rice’s Director of News and Media Relations directed me to an article published in Rice News shortly after the release of this year’s rankings.

According to the article, “[Rice President David] Leebron cited campus beauty, opportunities to engage with the city of Houston, southern hospitality and new facilities on campus as some of the factors that contributed to Rice’s high rankings. ‘But at the end of the day, it’s really about how people treat each other—how our students treat each other, the way our staff treats the students and the way the faculty regards the students,’ he said. ‘All those really are the core of the quality of life for our students.’”

Other sources of happiness include Rice’s residential colleges (described as “Hogwarts style”), academic advising, opportunities for research and volunteer work around Houston, and the “fantastic” weather. But nothing on the lists distinguishes Rice from a host of other universities. The University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, Yale, and Princeton all have similarly self-described Potterian housing. Brown has a hefty advising network, wonderful research opportunities, and, well, almost “fantastic” weather. If nothing is changing at Clemson and Rice, we should accept the possibility that Brown students are getting sadder. Perhaps the disgruntled critics of past Spring Weekend lineups have poisoned us all.

Conspiracy theories aside, the hyper-competitive college application process of today does offer a potential source of our waning happiness. Public Policy concentrator Moss Amer ’13 posited that declining admission rates have attracted, and will continue to attract, students who are inherently less happy. “Now, a much higher proportion of the student body is comprised of individuals whose sole goal in applying to colleges was to attend an Ivy League—or otherwise high profile—school.” The self-selection of happy students “will be replaced by a self-selection of workaholics who care more about grades than personal growth.” With a newly-born, highly competitive School of Engineering and 2011’s recording-breakingly low admissions rate, maybe we started attracting students who differ from the prototypical carefree treehugger for which Brown is known—all despite the University’s reportedly holistic approach to admissions. Woes with the Corporation and Brown’s recently questionable relationship with Providence probably do not help.

Of course, making an argument for the importance of happiness is superfluous. I’m going to do it anyway. We must embrace Brown’s naïve giddiness of 2010. It is time we got off Spotted@Brown and tasted a little Chicken Finger Friday. Our University is relying on us. The admissions rate is not likely to increase substantially; that means the change must come from within. If we want happier incoming students (which we do—they are only going to sustain the atmosphere we know and love), we have to convince applicants that students are already happy here.

Perhaps it comes down to that Clemson ice cream. Providence translation? If we want Clemson-level happiness, we are going to need admissions-sponsored dates at Froyo World. Setzler added a telling point: “Clemson students are not the ones that mope around and cry.” Can we say the same? Ray Bans and dark skinny jeans tell no lies.