The University of Pennsylvania has the least distinctive identity of any prestigious college in America. It has a robust Greek scene, but nothing compared to a state school. It has risen impressively in the U.S. News rankings—from nineteenth place in 1988 to eighth in the latest round—but it remains a second-tier Ivy, and many students have a chip on their shoulder. (When a team of psychologists asked a group of Penn students to free-associate about their school, 30 percent mentioned the phrase “Ivy League”; only 7 percent of Harvard students did the same.) Even its name is cruelly generic: Until recently, Penn’s official bookstore sold t-shirts with the motto, “Not Penn State.” If anything defines the school, it is the influence of finance: Penn sends more seniors straight to Wall Street than any other U.S. college, and it has more billionaire undergraduate alumni than Harvard.
One label Penn has latched onto is “the social ivy.” Any student—even an official tour guide—will tell you the campus has a “work hard, play hard” mentality, and in September, Playboy conferred on Penn a surprising new title: Number One Party School in America. “UPenn puts other Ivies to shame with its union of brains, brewskies and bros,” claims Playboy, whose annual party-school ranking has traditionally favored less tweedy schools, like the University of Miami. Could the Playboy honor finally give Penn the identity it never quite possessed? On Halloween—which happened to fall on Homecoming weekend—I went to investigate.
It’s just after midnight, and a sexy nurse, Kanye West, and a guy wrapped in an Italian flag are scrambling upstairs at a frat house on Spruce Street. Boys inside the party text the girls hovering outside: “Give up—the cops are here.” A frat bro dressed as Aladdin switches on the lights.
The group I’m tagging along with migrates to the house’s backyard. A few minutes later, a brother appears, looking relieved. “They gave, like, ten citations,” he says. Philly is cracking down on open containers, but the party can go on—for now. The lights are switched off. The music entreats students to put their hands up. Dixie cups of vodka and Solo cups of PBR are passed around again. Two bros clap beers, splashing on everyone around them.
Twenty minutes later, the police are back—and the brothers, nervous now, are serious about kicking everyone out. This time, we comply. “Cops busting parties is very normal,” says a sophomore from New York. “The solution is to hide upstairs, or go to another party.” We choose the latter option, and trek to another frat house down the street. We arrive to find that this party, too, has been shut down. Unfazed, my guide confers with her friends, weighing which parties might still be going. It’s about 12:30.
According to Playboy, competition among frats yields “a balls-out war of debauchery.” It seems more like a battle to stay open longer than an hour. (Students themselves don’t feel entitled to Playboy’s compliment; one guest estimated, “We might be at the number four party at the number 50 school.”)
But over the course of my weekend at Penn, I came to think that the less-than-happening social scene was not just a function of over-zealous campus cops. If the frats at Penn don’t seem like much fun, that’s because, well, fun is not the point. A particular kind of status anxiety pervades even the party-going at Penn, turning a night out into a series of achievements: been to this party, seen that person. Penn fosters a specific kind of insecurity—borne of a combination of ambition and inferiority complex—and it permeates all aspects of life at the college.
Whereas Harvard and Princeton were established to give future clergymen an education in philosophy and theology, Penn has always had a more practical bent. Founded in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin, it was set up to train young Americans for careers in business, government, and public service. At an information session for prospective students on a Friday afternoon, Eric Furda, the dean of admissions, downplayed this heritage. “We’re not a trade school,” he tells the high schoolers gathered at the College Hall. But it’s hard to imagine a dean at any other Ivy needing to make this kind of disclaimer. There’s an undeniable aura of pre-professionalism in the air at Penn. The most obvious reason for this is the businesss school, Wharton. Though it enrolls less than one-fifth of all undergrads, Wharton “casts a shadow over everything,” says a recent grad who majored in English. When Dean Furda asked a random applicant at the info session what websites he visits for fun, he answered: ESPN and Investor’s Business Daily. Anyone who enters the campus bookstore is confronted by a prominent business section, just behind the new arrivals: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street, Creativity Inc, Eight Keys to Making Change Work.
“If you don’t decide to do finance or something investment-bank related, you’re kind of an outcast,” says a junior urban studies major. “It’s looked down on not to go into finance or consulting,” says a senior girl who’s studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). (Pre-law and pre-med students are okay.) She tells me the pressure of the job search is “ten times worse” than college applications. The big firms come to recruit juniors and seniors, but students begin preparing long before. “There’s a girl in my year reading the Vault Guide to Finance Interviews,” says a sophomore. “Yeah, everyone reads that,” says a knowing junior. The senior explains how students can twist any major to sound appealing to recruiters. A history major can focus on economic history. A sociology student might bill herself as a quantitative sociologist. “The most important thing at Penn, by far, is to get a high-paying job,” she says. “I don’t think there’s one person who would put social life over job search.”
This kind of resume-padding reflects a ruthless utilitarian logic embedded deep in many Penn students. “Our decisions are purposeful and most can go on a resume,” writes a Penn junior, in a piece that begins with a description of her 78-item “to do” list. In 34th Street, a student magazine, a sophomore argues that students should carve time out of their schedules to sit down for meals—but only because it could contribute to their “personal development.” One of the most popular topics on the Penn forum of “College Confidential,” a blog frequented by college applicants, is sorting the frats and sororities according to a whole set of hierarchies: who’s most attractive, wealthiest, most athletic. (One thread on sorority rankings has been viewed over 113,000 times.)
Frats and sororities—a gateway to the gilded Goldman life that many Penn undergrads seem to want—are perhaps the most concentrated locus of students’ status anxiety. One junior from New York pledged a frat because he wanted to be around students with “comparable upbringings”: He tells me his frat has “a high concentration of kids of the same caliber—New York kids, L.A. kids, international kids.” Alumni often send out recruiting tips and job opportunities via the groups’ private listservs. Plus, partying may help develop a certain set of social skills: The big banks and consulting firms “want normal people, sociable people,” a sorority member says.
"Your frat basically plans your social life for you,” says a junior, explaining his decision to pledge. “You don’t have to worry, like, ‘What am I gonna do tonight?’” The same impulse is driving his career plans. “I’m gonna go into finance because I don’t know what else to do,” he says. But he knows what he’s going to do tonight. His frat has planned it for him.
This post has been updated.