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How To Reduce High-Risk College Drinking: Use Proven Strategies, Fill Research Gaps

Executive Summary

“Underage drinking to excess has a negative effect on everything we’re trying to do as a university. It compromises the educational environment, the safety of our students (both high-risk drinkers themselves and other students hurt by their actions), the quality of life on campus, town/gown relationships, and our reputation.”

Dr. Judith Ramaley Former President, University of Vermont

“Class scheduling, class attendance, student attrition, student academic performance, and the civility of campus life are all negatively affected by excessive student drinking.”

Dr. Susan Resneck Pierce President, University of Puget Sound

“Student safety is of paramount importance, and if we save one life, our [alcohol prevention] program is working.”

Dr. William Jenkins President, Louisiana State University System

“Universities are often afraid to reveal that they have a problem with alcohol, although everyone knows it anyway. But we’ve seen important benefits from focusing on the problem and taking a tough stand. Applications are up, student quality is up, more students are participating in activities like drama and music, and alumni giving has increased, for example. I know that support for me personally has grown with my reputation for taking strong ethical positions and sticking with them.”

Dr. Robert L. Carothers President, University of Rhode Island

College student drinking to excess is a widespread national problem with serious consequences—and it has been for a long time. Although the factors that have made the problem so intractable are complex, today—based on scientific research results—we have the potential to make real progress in controlling excessive drinking. In fact, a substantial body of research studies now offers direction on how to reduce excessive, underage, and high-risk college drinking. On the basis of this information, colleges and universities, communities, and other interested organizations can take steps toward positive change more confidently. Although significant information gaps remain, the science-based guidance now available means campuses and communities no longer have to “reinvent the wheel” when they try to address the problem. It also enables us to avoid inadvertently perpetuating ineffective programs and approaches.

The availability of science-based guidance is a significant step forward because lack of information about what works and what does not has been a major obstacle to progress. On the research side, high-quality research has addressed only some of the issues of concern to college administrators and the practical implications of research results have not been widely disseminated. On the institutional side, most campus alcohol efforts have not been evaluated, which has hindered the effectiveness of individual campus efforts and slowed the growth of the knowledge base from which all could learn.

Although the research base on college alcohol problems is limited, the panel of college presidents, students, and alcohol research specialists that contributed to this report identified a number of effective strategies that colleges and universities could confidently use today. These include strategies for changing the environment to discourage high-risk drinking, affecting the behavior of individuals and groups, creating comprehensive college-community efforts to combat the problem, and adopting effective approaches for managing program implementation. It is encouraging that many of these strategies require no new resources, are modest in costs, and can be accomplished by existing staff.

From its review of the scientific literature, the Panel on Prevention and Treatment believes that adopting approaches with demonstrated effectiveness can begin to reduce high-risk college drinking and continue to advance knowledge by filling critical research gaps. The Panel recommends that the action steps and research needs described below receive priority attention from colleges and universities, researchers, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and other potential funders, communities, and interested organizations.

The Panel recommended more action steps in some areas than in others. This is primarily due to the amount of research available. Except as noted, approaches that have not been included in the recommendations are not necessarily ineffective. Often simply less is known about them. Among the “key research gaps” identified by the Panel is the need for rigorous testing of strategies now considered “promising” based on face value or common sense. As researchers rise to this challenge, the effectiveness of many of these approaches will become known.

What Colleges and Universities Can Do Now

The Panel suggested that colleges and universities take the following steps to create a healthy environment on campus, promote healthy behaviors, develop comprehensive college-community interventions, and implement effective programs.

Creating a Healthy Environment

  • Pay careful attention to environmental factors on campus and in the community. They are extremely important in influencing college drinking behaviors both positively and negatively.
  • Actively enforce existing age 21 laws on campus; they help decrease alcohol consumption.
  • Use social norms interventions to correct misperceptions and change drinking practices. When discussing college drinking problems, do not inadvertently reinforce the notion that hazardous drinking is the norm. Help students understand that they have the right not to drink and to have negative feelings about the consequences they experience due to other students’ excessive drinking.
  • Communicate the institution’s, the community’s, and the State’s alcohol policies to students and parents before and after students arrive on campus.
  • Be cautious about making alcohol available on campus. In the general population, increased availability is associated with increased consumption.

Promoting Healthy Behaviors Through Individual- and Group-Focused Approaches

  • Use brief motivational interventions, such as giving feedback on students’ personal drinking behavior and negative consequences, comparing individual drinking habits to actual campus norms, and teaching drinking reduction skills. Strong evidence of effectiveness supports these relatively low-cost interventions.
  • Increase screening and outreach programs to identify students who could benefit from alcohol-related services.
  • Train those who regularly interact with students, such as resident advisors, coaches, peers, and faculty, to identify problems and link students with intervention services and/or provide brief motivational interventions. This allows colleges and universities to improve services without adding new staff.
  • Use educational interventions that provide new information such as describing alcohol-related programs and policies, informing students about drinking-and-driving laws, and explaining how to care for peers who show signs of alcohol poisoning. Use alcohol education in concert with other approaches, such as skills training or social norms.
  • Avoid using educational efforts focused primarily on facts about alcohol and associated harm as a sole programmatic response to student drinking. They have proven to be ineffective.
  • Be inclusive of varied student subpopulations. Determine and address the special needs of groups such as racial/ethnic minorities, women, athletes, “Greeks,” students of different ages, and gay and lesbian students.

Creating Comprehensive College-Community Interventions

  • Create and/or participate in joint college-community interventions to reduce student drinking problems. Community coalitions have been effective in addressing alcohol and other health issues, although there has been no research on campus-community activities to reduce high-risk drinking and related problems.
  • Create a task force or coalition representing relevant constituencies on campus (including students) and in the community (including local businesses) to develop and monitor college drinking initiatives.
  • Plan coalition activities strategically, including setting measurable objectives, establishing target timelines, clearly defining member responsibilities, and collecting and evaluating data on both the process of working together and the results of the interaction.

Managing Program Implementation Effectively

  • Be critical consumers of alcohol prevention strategies. Use programs with demonstrated effectiveness, such as those recommended in this report.
  • Take a strategic, outcome-driven approach to planning that reflects the campus situation and recognizes the need for the alignment of alcohol programs and policies with other aspects of institutional policy. Evaluate policies and programs and share the results with other colleges and universities.
  • Recognize that college student drinking prevention programs require a long-term (10- to 15-year) commitment. Set realistic objectives for change that are based on institutional assessment and national experience.
  • Establish a system for collecting data regularly on alcohol consumption and related problems. Report information objectively on campus and in the community, and update progress regularly.
  • Adopt and integrate complementary approaches, rather than focusing only on one. For example, when combined, social norms and policy enforcement efforts can enhance each other.
  • Involve students in developing and implementing activities to reduce high-risk drinking.
  • Involve a broad base of campus and community groups in prevention efforts, and reward students and others for supporting these programs.
  • Use social marketing approaches to create and market programs to students.
  • Encourage presidents, administrators, and other campus leaders to communicate the message that reducing harmful alcohol use is an institutional priority.
  • Have alcohol prevention interventions in place before the freshmen arrive in the fall and sponsor related activities frequently during the first weeks of the academic year. Train those who conduct prospective student tours and interviews to explain the institution’s alcohol policies and desired norms.
  • Help move the field forward. Be willing to participate in alcohol-related research programs, for example, or to become a State or national policy advocate on college drinking issues.

Recommendations to Researchers: Key Research Gaps

The Panel developed recommendations for researchers in the form of study questions to address gaps in the same four action areas suggested above for colleges and universities.

Creating a Healthy Environment

  • What is the effect of banning or stringently regulating alcohol on campus? Do problems simply move off campus? How are on- and off-campus cultures affected?
  • Are parental notification policies effective? If so, what are the characteristics of effective parental notification programs? At what point should parents be notified for optimal results?
  • What is the most effective type of campus disciplinary system for alcohol offenses? Should campus alcohol disciplinary systems and standards be extended to students who live off campus and in what circumstances? Should infractions be handled differently for those under 21 years of age?
  • How does the academic environment affect student drinking patterns? For example, would high-risk drinking be reduced if more classes were scheduled on Fridays or academic expectations were increased (e.g., reducing grade inflation, increasing difficulty of classes and requirements)?
  • What is the impact of substance-free housing on alcohol problems?
  • What approaches effectively reduce alcohol problems within the Greek system? Does the presence of a live-in resident advisor reduce drinking? Does delaying rush reduce alcohol problems? Do risk management efforts make a positive difference?
  • What are the key environmental characteristics that influence drinking? How should environmental characteristics and environmental change be measured?
  • Do alcohol-free activities and venues reduce college alcohol problems? What factors (e.g., frequency, timing, type, planning) influence effectiveness?
  • How are social norms campaigns most effectively used (e.g., in combination with other activities; to set the stage for more comprehensive initiatives)?

Promoting Healthy Behaviors Through Individual- and Group-Focused Approaches

  • What are the campuswide effects of implementing individual- and group-focused interventions?
  • How well do these interventions work with different campus populations, including Greeks, incoming students, mandated students, adult children of alcoholics, athletes, students at various risk levels based on current alcohol practices, students living on and off campus, and members of different ethnic, religious, and cultural groups?
  • How effective are student-to-student interventions?
  • What are the most effective uses of computer-based technologies in college alcohol initiatives?
  • Should approaches be tailored to the needs and situations of underage students versus those age 21 and older?
  • What are the most effective and cost-effective ways to conduct outreach for alcohol services?
  • What criteria are appropriate for diagnosing college student alcohol problems? Do they differ from the general population criteria used in currently available instruments?
  • How well do pilot programs work when taken to scale on different campuses?

Creating Comprehensive College-Community Interventions

  • Are comprehensive college-community interventions to reduce high-risk college drinking effective? What is the most effective mix of policy and program elements? What are the assets and liabilities for colleges and communities?
  • Is it more effective to focus such efforts on drinking practices or on the health and social problems high-risk drinkers cause for themselves and others?
  • Where should decision-making responsibility be focused: in city government, the college and university, another group or institution, or a combination of players?
  • What are the best strategies for mobilizing and optimizing the effectiveness of campus-community coalitions?
  • Do effects of college-focused programs extend to others in the community?
  • What is the best way to enforce community alcohol-related ordinances?
  • How can the results of alcohol research be effectively disseminated to community audiences such as chiefs of police, parents, and legislators?
  • How effective are State-level coalitions that support individual campus-community collaborations?

Managing Program Implementation Effectively

  • What planning structure or process is most effective in developing campus alcohol policies and programs?
  • What is the relative effectiveness of different accountability structures for managing college alcohol programs?
  • What are the costs and effects of alcohol prevention interventions including campus-based and comprehensive campus-community efforts? How can programs be made more cost-effective?
  • Which alcohol policies and programs most benefit the college and university in terms of student recruitment, student quality and academic performance, student diversity, student retention, faculty behaviors, fundraising, and alumni relations?
  • What are the most effective strategies for involving presidents, administrators, faculty, students, other staff, and boards of directors in alcohol prevention programs?
  • Is it effective to make prospective students aware of alcohol policies during the marketing or admissions process?
  • What are the most effective ways of engaging, optimizing, and maintaining the involvement of different student subgroups, including ethnic and racial minorities?
  • How can higher education and secondary education work together on alcohol issues, including the transition from high school to college?

Recommendations to NIAAA and Other Potential Program Funders

The Panel offered the following recommendations to NIAAA and other program funders:

  • Provide direction for the research field through initiatives and publications.
  • Consider new initiatives, mechanisms, and procedures to encourage and support needed research that may not conform to a typical National Institutes of Health investigator-initiated research format.
  • Provide technical assistance, remove barriers, and offer incentives to facilitate college and university participation in alcohol research studies.
  • Increase collaboration with other Federal agencies for joint funding in this field.
  • Invest resources in developing a model alcohol-related data collection system for campuses nationwide. Maintain a permanent database of this information.
  • Work with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to include data indicators needed to quantify college alcohol problems in accident reports. Indicators include whether subjects are enrolled in college, where, and at what level.
  • Conduct an annual press briefing to highlight progress made and resources needed to continue addressing college alcohol issues.
  • Open dialogue and seek partnerships with national organizations to fulfill the recommendations of this report. Such groups include other Federal agencies, States, the national Interfraternity Council and Pan-Hellenic Council, boards of individual Greek organizations, national student organizations, industry, athletic conferences, high schools, and groups representing college and university presidents, boards of trustees, and administrators. Give such a coalition a reason to interact, such as working together to develop the model for national data collection.
  • Create and disseminate short publications to various campus audiences (including students) that synthesize current research findings and identify what the college community can do about the problem.

Recommendations to Other Interested National Organizations

The Panel offered the following recommendations to other national organizations:

  • Provide venues (e.g., at annual meetings) for researchers to share information on this issue.
  • Encourage colleges and universities to enact policies and programs that research deems effective.
  • Help educate the press about campus alcohol issues, including actual levels of college drinking and the progress being made in reducing high-risk behaviors and their consequences.
  • Consider ways in which existing jobs and organizational elements could be reconceptualized to include a focus on college alcohol issues.


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Historical document
Last reviewed: 9/23/2005

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