Do Colleges Have Proms or Formal Dances?

Do Colleges Have Proms or Formal Dances?

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If you’re a new college student, you may want to know which balls or events you can attend on campus. Prom, homecoming, and graduation balls are some of the most highly anticipated events in high schools across the world. But do colleges have proms or formal dances, too? 

Colleges generally don’t sponsor proms because they’re associated with high school and can be too large for colleges to handle. However, college-based organizations hold parties, dances, and other events for students at different times of the year.  

For the rest of this article, I’ll discuss why colleges don’t usually hold proms, the many types of social gatherings a student will likely encounter in college, including some that are prom-like, but with the bonus of not being chaperoned. 

Why Don’t Colleges Hold Prom?

Though prom is widely regarded as a high school event, it traces its beginnings in college. One of the earliest recorded mentions of prom is by a male student at Amherst College, who describes his prom experience at nearby Smith College in an 1894 journal entry. 

Short for “promenade,” or “the formal, introductory parading of guests at a party,” prom started out in the United States as a simple event. It was designed to teach young people etiquette before moving out of school gymnasiums and into hotel ballrooms and evolving into the high school staple that it is today. 

These days, perhaps except for 2020, the year that COVID-19 forced virtually everyone to stay home, prom is a full-scale event. High school juniors and seniors carefully pick out dresses and suits, stage elaborate “promposals,” and drive up to the venue in limousines. Many high schoolers have even asked celebrities to be their prom date (and some succeeded).

In college, students have more access to parties and other social events, but not exactly the high school prom that has been popularized across the decades in pop culture and more recently on social media. 

Colleges don’t hold prom because of the event’s inextricable, almost exclusive association with high school, logistical issues due to massive college student populations, and liability concerns relating to large-scale gatherings. 

Prom Is Too Associated With High School

Around a century of history has made prom nearly inseparable from the high school experience. Captured in pop culture and now social media, prom – and all the “first times” that it acts as a stage for – is considered a milestone for young people on the cusp of adulthood. 

In college, students expect to be treated like mature adults. With their newfound separation from high school, college students are unlikely to want to participate in an event that too closely resembles the teenage life they only recently left behind.

Similarly, colleges themselves don’t organize a formal dance for their students. College students are generally above 18 years old, officially adults – not exactly the target demographic for a chaperoned dance. 

College Student Populations Are Too Large

Another apparent reason prom doesn’t exist in college is the sheer size of the student body. 

Unlike high school, where students and teachers could fit in a gymnasium or a hotel function room, universities have larger student populations and various colleges and departments with their own administration and calendar of events. The number of students in a college could be at least ten times that of high schools on average. Organizing such a large-scale event will practically be a logistical nightmare requiring tenfold facilities and budgets.

Expenses would add up to massive amounts as well; the venue alone will cost a fortune, considering it has to be big enough to accommodate thousands of people. Food and entertainment won’t be cheap at that scale, either.

Liability Concerns

When high schools organize prom, homecoming, or other formal dances, they assume responsibility for all the attendees. If something goes wrong, the school could be held liable. 

Now, imagine that kind of responsibility multiplied ten times or so. Given the large number of their students, colleges will face a more significant probability of untoward incidents occurring during prom-type events or dances. Given the large number of college students, things can easily get out of hand. 

If things go south at a college-organized party, the monetary and reputational costs may be high. 

Prom-Like College Events

Despite the lack of prom, college students have no shortage of opportunities to go out and socialize. If you missed prom in high school or were disappointed by your experience, here are some formal events in college that resemble prom in some ways, minus the adult supervision part.

College Galas or Dances

Colleges are no stranger to formal events, one of which is a gala, which could be held as a fundraiser, an awarding ceremony, or a celebration of the service of a retiring official or veteran staff member. 

These events aren’t limited to students; school officials, faculty members, notable alumni, and even community or business leaders could be invited. 

Students can also take the chance to dress up at college dances. These may not necessarily be formal events, but they’re a fun gathering of students, usually occurring at specific times during the school year. 

What’s more, students don’t need to worry about following dress codes set by the school as things are more relaxed, which are among the perks of adult life. 

Fraternity or Sorority Formals

Despite the name, formals aren’t exactly ball gown events. Greek life formals are basically the college version of a high school dance, according to Her Campus

Formals are parties for drinking, dancing, and socializing. Occurring once in the winter and once in spring, formals are usually weekend getaways in hotels or resorts, where fraternity brothers and sorority sisters are expected to bring a date. 

Formals can get crazy, so it’s important to know what to expect beforehand and set boundaries before you let loose and have fun! Check out these safety guidelines from Dartmouth University Greek organizations. 

College Homecoming

Celebrated not only by schools and colleges but by different organizations, homecoming is the tradition of welcoming back alumni members and students. 

In the United States, the homecoming dance takes place after a game (usually American football) and a parade. 

Homecoming parties, generally held annually, present another opportunity for college students to dress up and celebrate with their friends, enjoy the festivities, and meet new people. 

Campus Organization-Sponsored Dances

There are lots of interest-based organizations in colleges and universities, and each of them will organize their own events, which may include formal parties. 

Student groups are free to host their meetings and gatherings for different purposes, such as celebrating achievements or milestones or recruiting new members. 

Some of these events may only be for members of the host organization, but some may allow outsiders to join. 

Other Social Events for College Students

There are several types of student organizations, including varsity teams, academic groups, civic organizations, student publications, and interest- and faith-based organizations. Each group will come up with different activities. 

Similarly, each campus will have a different events calendar; even each friend group will have various ideas for fun activities, so this isn’t a definitive list of college social activities. This list only aims to give you an idea of what to expect on campus outside of your lectures, exams, and papers.

Now, here’s a quick rundown of the usual non-academic social events in college: 

  • Orientations or welcome events. These events are held at the start of the school year or upon joining a campus-based organization. 
  • Sporting events. All colleges participate in sports competitions, so get ready to cheer for your school’s team during games, whether that’s basketball, baseball, football, hockey, or other sports. There may also be smaller, inter-college, or interdepartmental games you could join or attend. 
  • Music performances. Student bands or even outside performers may be invited to entertain attendees of various events. 
  • Art exhibitions. Check out your college museum for any cool exhibits. Also, keep an eye out for random art installations that may pop up across campus. 
  • Alumni events. Notable alumni may speak at lectures and other events to inspire students or share experiences from their time in college. 
  • Parties. Lots of them. Whether that’s dinner-and-games parties with close friends or wilder nights out at clubs, parties are definitely part of the college experience. 

Some of these activities may have gone virtual due to social distancing requirements in the time of the pandemic, but students could enjoy more social events in person as the COVID-19 situation improves. 

Final Thoughts

The traditional prom as we know it is reserved for high school students, despite its roots in colleges. Initially designed to teach young people good manners, prom has evolved into an extravaganza that holds special significance for students about to leave high school. 

At present, colleges and universities don’t organize proms for various reasons, including logistics and liability concerns, but they still hold formal events where students could dress up and socialize. 

At the same time, colleges and college-based organizations hold less formal social events to give students a well-rounded college experience.