At a recent government-sponsored meeting on college drinking, I received a call from my office that a student from my own campus had been cited for creating a public disturbance. According to our local newspaper, he had insisted to police that he and his friends were simply being college students.
That same attitude was in evidence weeks later during a speech I gave about excessive drinking on campuses to a regional service club. Some in the audience responded that college students have always drunk too much, that drinking was simply part of college life and that most students would grow out of it.
In a sense, they were right. Irresponsible drinking by young people has been a danger literally for centuries-at least since the days of homer, who described such behavior in The Odyssey. Moreover, the research showing that as many as two-thirds of those American college students who drink excessively will stop doing so after college.
But what is different and worrisome about the behavior of today’s students is that far too many of them are drinking expressly to get drunk, among them growing numbers of young women.
Alcohol abuse is a problem that should concern trustees for two key reasons: the real risks to student health and campus safety and the potential for institutional liability. The latter is occasioned by the reality that in extreme cases, alcohol abuse can be fatal. At least 84 American college students have died of alcohol-related causes since 1996, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and this count may be low. Such tragedies, of course, often are accompanied by litigation and unwelcome publicity.
Effects on campus life
Although the majority of college students who drink do so in moderation, there is ample evidence that a significant minority abuses alcohol. A recent nationwide survey by the Harvard School of Public Health found that 42 percent of college students engaged in at least one excessive drinking episode (the men consumed more than five consecutive drinks, the women more than four) during the two-week period before the survey. Fully 21 percent had engaged in three or more excessive drinking episodes in that same period. In other words, slightly more that one of every five college students regularly drinks to excess, while two out of five appear to do so often.
Alcohol abuse has many consequences, all of which are antithetical to learning and destructive to a healthy campus climate. One recent study of 113 colleges and universities found alcohol abuse responsible for 64 percent of campus incidents of violent behavior, 42 percent of physical injuries, two-thirds of all property damage, and nearly 40 percent of general emotional and academic difficulties.
Alcohol is typically a factor in date rapes. And it shows up in common student complaints about campus life: too much noise and obnoxious behavior by roommates or others in residence halls. Some large university campuses have experienced alcohol-inspired riots, triggered in some cases by new enforcement of alcohol laws and policies.
Campus administrators, despite their efforts for at least this past decade, have not come up with effective ways to diminish alcohol abuse. In part, this is because we have believed too readily in the power of education to minimize the risks of alcohol abuse. (In fact, many of those who are best educated about the dangers of alcohol abuse are themselves alcoholics.)
Many states tried to cope with the problem in the 1980s by raising the legal drinking age to 21. Although the laws have reduced deaths on roadways significantly and curbed some underage drinking, the change in legal drinking age has presented campuses with the ethical and legal dilemma of educating underage students on how to drink responsibly while simultaneously enforcing the laws.
On my own campus, we recognize that almost all students in freshmen orientation are underage. Hence, we stress that drinking is illegal, that breaking the law is wrong and consequential, and that excessive drinking threatens academic success. At the same time, we try to educate students on what to do if a friend or acquaintance appears to be suffering from alcohol poisoning.
Unfortunately, colleges and universities generally have failed to assess the programs they offer and so have invested time, energy, and money in programs that may not be making any difference. The National Institute on Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse (niaaa) currently is surveying programs across the country to determine which ones work, which don’t, and which are promising. The agency also plans to determine future areas of research on the prevention of alcohol abuse on campuses.
The final report, however, is many months away. In the meantime, college students continue to endanger themselves and others. So what should campuses do now? And what is the board’s role?
Time for new approaches
First, trustees, students, faculty members, and administrators need to recognize just how difficult it will be to change the alcohol-reliant culture that dominates most campuses. In particular, they need to understand the deeply held attitudes about alcohol among some students. Some equate alcohol with their rite of passage into adulthood. They see drinking as a personal right, even if they are under the legal drinking age.
Many students turn to alcohol as a social lubricant. Yet those who drink in groups, contrary to conventional wisdom, may be even more endangered than those who drink alone. Athletes and fraternity members on some campuses may be at greatest risk, chiefly because individual members of those groups may drink excessively simply because their peers do. Also, students in general tend to believe that other students drink more than they do, which prompts them to drink more than they might otherwise. (Programs that educate students about the actual levels of drinking by their peers have met with some success in reducing drinking, but none has been tested adequately for analysts to draw conclusions.)
Second, we need to acknowledge that administrators and faculty members unwittingly have helped create campus cultures that allow students to drink excessively without significant consequences. For example, on many campuses, grade inflation, diminished faculty expectations, Fridays without classes, and fewer early morning classes have enabled students to drink with relative impunity. At Dartmouth College, the New York Times reported last fall, “professors complain of the near impossibility of scheduling Thursday morning classes because Wednesday is now party night, a kind of symbolic start of the weekend.”
Such campuses would serve their students better by continuing to schedule classes at the conventional times and holding students accountable both for attendance and performance.
Third, we need to look at the messages we send students about alcohol. Do we sponsor tailgate parties before athletic events at which adults drink excessively? Do we sell such alcohol-related products as beer mugs and shot glasses at our campus bookstores?
(At a private university club in New York, I recently was struck by the sight of fliers promoting alcohol nights for alumni posted adjacent to those announcing events for prospective students and their parents.)
We also need to look at the larger environment. For example, advertising-on radio, TV, in newspapers, and now on the Web–promotes drinking in substantial ways. Many bars and nightclubs conduct alcohol promotions. Should our campus newspapers and radio stations accept their advertising?
Trustees also might encourage their presidents to establish a broad-based task force of public officials, retailers, and bar owners along with students, faculty, and staff. The group could mount programs aimed at preventing intoxicated and underage students from being served alcohol. It also could press for elimination of alcohol promotions aimed at young people.
Ultimately, if college and universities are to reduce alcohol abuse, we will need to act carefully and deliberately, with the clear goal of not just educating students but of changing their behavior. This effort will require campus and community leaders to move out of our collective state of denial about excessive drinking. Most of all, it will require us to disabuse our students and our communities of the notion that drinking really is just a part of students being students.
Sidebar: A sober assessment of campus alcohol programs
Trustees can encourage efforts to address alcohol abuse in ways that involve students by considering the following questions:
1. Does the campus engage students in designing attractive social alternatives to alcohol-reliant events? Are students engaged in designing alcohol-prevention programs? Do campus programs educate students on how to help others who are suffering from alcohol poisoning? Students who become leaders in such programs are more apt to drink responsibly or to abstain from drinking after taking such leadership roles. Further, students are more apt to participate in alcohol-education programs for altruistic reasons than if the programs are aimed strictly at those who drink.
2. Does the campus educate student groups about risk management in relationship to alcohol? This approach can be particularly effective for campuses with a Greek system.
3. Does the institution effectively share with the community available information about excessive drinking? Is the information explicit about how excessive drinking is antithetical to learning?
4. Does the institution effectively educate students about the legal consequences of violating drinking laws and of driving under the influence of alcohol?
5. Is the administration developing a database that documents alcohol-related incidents so that the campus community understands the magnitude of the problem and can assess whether new alcohol-prevention programs are effective?
6. Is the campus participating in a national study of campus alcohol use in order to assess the alcohol consumption of its own students?
This article was published in the March/April 2000 issue of Trusteeship, which is published by The Association of Governing Board of Universities and Colleges. President Susan Resneck Pierce serves on the National Advisory Council Subcommittee on College Drinking of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.