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College Drinking

  • Chris Woolston. M.S.
  • Posted March 11, 2013

In March 2007, an 18-year-old college freshman at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, went into cardiac arrest after a night of heavy drinking at a campus fraternity. Thirty hours later, he was dead.

In November 2006, an 18-year-old freshman with a blood alcohol content of 0.19 fell to his death from a fifth-floor balcony at the University of Texas.

Two years earlier, another University of Texas freshman died of alcohol poisoning in a fraternity house. His blood alcohol content was 0.41, more than five times the legal limit for driving.

These young people are among the estimated 1,800 college students who die each year in alcohol-related incidents. Just about everyone who has ever been to college has a drinking story: The game of "quarters" that turned ugly, the friend who passed out on the chancellor's lawn, the freshman assaulted by drunken frat boys, the roommate who went through finals week with a perpetual hangover. "There's nothing that can ruin a promising future faster than a night of binge drinking followed by a sexual assault," says Jeff Linkenbach, EdD, a former director of the Alcohol and Drug Assistance Center at Montana State University and the current director of MOST of Us, a campaign to reduce college drinking and other risky behaviors.

"Getting more extreme"

The percentage of regular college binge drinkers has remained fairly stable over the last two decades. In fact, over the past decade or so the number of students that abstain from alcohol has increased from 16 percent to 19 percent. But as reported in the Journal of General Psychology in 2006, about 40 percent of all college students have gone on at least one recent binge, defined in this study as consuming five or more drinks in a single session. A study on college alcohol use by the Harvard School of Public Health found that binge drinkers as a whole represent less than half the college population (44 percent), but they account for almost all (91 percent) of the alcohol consumed on campus.

Even though drinking is illegal unless students are 21 or older, 57.8 percent of full-time college students who are underage have used alcohol in the past month, 40.1 percent have been involved in binge drinking, and 16.6 percent are involved in heavy drinking, according to a national survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

But such statistics don't show the whole picture, Linkenbach says. Although overall rates of binge drinking have held steady, hard-core drinking that goes far beyond five drinks at a time seems to be on the rise. "The people at the extreme ends are getting more extreme," he says. One sign of the growing problem: As reported by the Associated Press, the number of students treated for alcohol poisoning at Harvard each year increased six-fold between 1998 and 2003.

The toll of college drinking is already staggering. As reported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in 2005, about one out of four college students say that drinking has caused academic problems. Nearly 700,000 students are assaulted each year by other students who are under the influence, and nearly 100,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault, NIAAA researchers estimated.

From community colleges to the Ivy League, centers of higher learning across the country are identifying alcohol as the number one threat to their students. Many have tried instituting programs to cut down on drinking, with various levels of success. At some schools, heavy drinking has become an entrenched part of the student culture; others have managed to move it to the background. But wherever a student goes to school, drinking comes down to an individual choice -- a choice that can be shaped by friends, parents, and campus leaders.

A Greek tragedy

Heavy drinking is a campus-wide problem, but alcohol is especially prevalent -- and potentially destructive -- in the Greek system. As reported in the Journal of General Psychology, the typical sorority member drinks about three times as much alcohol as the average female student living elsewhere, on or off campus. Among men, fraternity members drink about twice as much as other male students. About 43 percent of Greek men and women have reported suffering blackouts, compared with 21 percent of students in the general population.

The cycle of drinking at fraternities and sororities is especially hard to break, Linkenbach says. Many students pledge to the Greek system because they're attracted by the image of raucous, alcohol-fueled parties lampooned in the 1978 movie Animal House.

"People who join the Greek system aren't going in there blind," he says. Once they're in the system, he observes, fraternity and sorority members feel obligated to live up to their own expectations.

Fortunately, those expectations can change. In the early 1990s, Linkenbach helped develop Our Chapter, Our Choice, a program that encourages fraternities and sororities to take a more moderate approach to alcohol. The program, which has been implemented at hundreds of Greek houses across the country, trains advisers to reemphasize leadership and philanthropy, basic principles of the system that don't have anything to do with getting blitzed on Saturdays. Upperclassmen and -women can shift their priorities, and incoming pledges learn that they don't have to live up to hard-drinking stereotypes.

Healthy expectations

Our Chapter, Our Choice is one example of "social norms marketing," an approach pioneered by Linkenbach and a few others. Social norms marketing attempts to deflate peer pressure by emphasizing the fact that heavy drinkers (or substance abusers of any type) are a minority at any high school or college campus. Students who feel a need to conform are encouraged to follow the lead of other students who drink in moderation or not at all. A social norms program at Northern Illinois University helped cut binge drinking by about one-third over a six-year period. Perhaps not coincidentally, the number of alcohol-related injuries dropped by almost one-third.

So far, social norms approaches haven't been especially effective among college athletes, a group that, like members of the Greek system, tend to be heavy drinkers. As reported in the Journal of General Psychology, about 80 percent of athletes drink alcohol. (For male hockey players and female lacrosse players, the numbers approach 100 percent.) They are also more likely than non-athletes to go on binges.

As a group, athletes face unusual physical, social, and academic demands that complicate any attempt at intervention, Linkenbach says. "They're in a pressure cooker, and they feel like they need to blow off steam," he says. "Alcohol delivers every time."

Smart choices

Whether a student is a football player or a computer jockey, a healthy approach to alcohol is ultimately a personal decision. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, choosing the right school and the right housing can make that decision easier. The NIAAA urges parents and students to look for campuses that don't foster a culture of heavy drinking. Alcohol-free dorms are a clear sign that the college takes drinking seriously.

Parents and students should also understand the school's policy toward underage drinking, using a fake ID, public drunkenness, and other alcohol-related offenses. (To investigate the policies at a particular campus, see http://www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov/policies.) The availability of extensive counseling services for students with drug or alcohol programs is another positive sign. Parents and students should also consider staying clear of campuses where fraternities and sororities dominate the social scene.

The NIAAA urges parents to stay in close touch with their college students, especially during the first six weeks of school. Parents should call frequently to make sure their student is settling in and staying on track. Most of all, they should be up front about the dangers of excessive alcohol. College is a time of independence and experimentation, but it's also supposed to be a time of progress and growth -- things that don't mix well with excessive alcohol.

References

Hingson RW et al. Magnitude of and trends in alcohol-related mortality and morbidity among U.S. college students ages 18-24, 1998-2005. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs Supplement No. 16, July 2009

Interview with Jeff Linkenbach, EdD, a former director of the Alcohol and Drug Assistance Center at Montana State University and the current director of MOST of Us, a campaign to reduce college drinking and other risky behaviors

Turrisi, R. et al. Heavy drinking in college students: Who is at risk and what is being done about it? Journal of General Psychology. October 2006. 133(4): 401-420.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. What parents need to know about college drinking. 2005.http://www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov

The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention. A bulletin for fraternity and sorority advisers. 1996 http://www.higheredcenter.org

Bear, J. et al. College alcohol use: A full or empty glass? Harvard School of Public Health. College Alcohol Study. 2005 http://www.hsph.harvard.edu

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