Ross acknowledged there are far cheaper ways to boost a school's profile, but he said the debate offers an incomparable opportunity not just for exposure, but to transform life on campus. A number of schools, including two of this year's picks (Centre College in Danville, Ky., and Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.) have hosted more than once, though others have never applied again.
"It's a major disruption to campus life," said Craig LaMay, a Northwestern University professor who co-authored "Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future." ''I think that public relations benefit is quite small, especially when measured against the cost."
Regardless, Lynn is abuzz in excitement.
Marcheta Wright, an international relations professor at Lynn, developed two new courses that touch on the debates, and says the event comes up all the time in classes. She says students have taken pride in seeing their school's profile raised, but have also found themselves asking new questions and exploring new areas of study because of it.
"It's going to give them kind of bragging rights at the very least," she said. "But it's also getting them to think broader. It's getting them to think beyond themselves and their courses and their own personal trials and tribulations."
Sophia Barrett, a 21-year-old senior, said the debate has transformed her final year at Lynn. She went on school-sponsored trips to the Republican and Democratic political conventions as part of her journalism minor, she's been chosen to be an usher on the big night, and she finds her classmates taking an interest in the political process she didn't observe in her first three years.
"People who normally wouldn't be talking about it are talking," she said.
Ross darts in and out of meetings as the final preparations are made. He's eager for the national broadcast to begin and Lynn's name to echo through living rooms around the country. For now, though, the excitement is mixing with a dose of fear.
"It was supposed to inspire people," he said. "Now it's just scaring the hell out of us."
Follow Matt Sedensky on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sedensky
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