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Originally published: College drinking: the elephant on campus, op-ed piece in The Seattle Times (January 31, 2000)

Shortly after returning home from a National Institute on Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) meeting on college drinking, I learned that a student from my own campus had been cited for creating a public disturbance. He argued that he and his friends were simply being college students.

Irresponsible drinking on the part of young people has problem literally for centuries. For example, Homer describes its devastating effects in “The Odyssey.” What is different today is that many students drink to get drunk and many young women join their male classmates in drinking to excess. The problem is by America’s dependence on the automobile.

Unfortunately, college students are not the only ones in denial about the negative effects of excessive drinking.

Administrators and faculty also look away from the alcohol-reliance of some students and have unwittingly helped create campus cultures in which students drink excessively without suffering significant consequences.

The problem is serious. Although most college students drink moderately or abstain, a recent Harvard School of Public Health study reports that 42 percent had at least one excessive drinking episode (i. e., more than five consecutive drinks for men and more than four for women) in the two-week period prior to the survey and 21 percent had three or more such excessive drinking episodes in that same period.

Another recent study at 113 colleges and universities concludes that alcohol abuse is responsible for 64 percent of campus incidents of violent behavior, 42 percent of physical injuries, two-thirds of all property damage and close to 40 percent of both emotional and academic difficulties.

The Department of Education reports that 84 college students have died since 1996 because of alcohol but suggests this is a low estimate.

Valuing education, knowledge and reason, colleges have assumed that teaching students about the negative consequences of excessive drinking would change behavior. But when it comes to alcohol abuse, education alone is not enough. We also have not assessed our programs and so are devoting lots of time, energy and resources into programs that are not or may not be effective.

Changing this alcohol-reliant culture will not be easy for at least the following reasons:

  • Some students equate alcohol with their rite of passage into adulthood and see it as a personal right, even if they are
  • Some students turn to alcohol as a social lubricant, leading such groups as athletes and fraternity members to drink excessively because their peers do.
  • Students believe that other students drink more than they do and so in turn drink more than they might otherwise.
  • (Norms-based programs that educate students about the actual levels of drinking of peers have had some success in reducing drinking.)
  • Advertising and alcohol promotions at bars and clubs promote drinking. At a private university club in New York, I recently was struck that flyers promoting alcohol nights were adjacent to those announcing events for prospective students.
  • On many campuses, grade inflation, diminished faculty expectations, Fridays without classes and few early morning classes enable students to drink with impunity. When the gentleman’s C is replaced with the gentleperson’s B+, students without self-discipline or motivation can develop respectable transcripts.

Raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 has reduced both automobile fatalities and underage drinking. The law has, however, forced campuses to deal with the ethical and legal dilemma of trying simultaneously to enforce the law and, to save lives, to encourage underage students to drink responsibly.

Colleges and universities must have the courage to confront this serious problem, which in one way or another affects all our students.

To reduce alcohol abuse will require campuses across the country to act carefully and deliberately, with the clear goal not just of educating students but more importantly of changing their behavior. It will require all of us, both on our campuses and in our local communities, to move beyond denial about excessive drinking.

But most of all, it will require us to disabuse our students and our communities of the notion that drinking really is just part of students being students.

Susan Resneck Pierce, president of The University of Puget Sound, serves on the National Advisory Council Subcommittee on College Drinking of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.