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

Research-Based Rationale for Action: A Widespread Problem With Harmful Consequences

Hazardous drinking among college students is a widespread problem that occurs on campuses of all sizes and geographic locations. A recent survey of college students conducted by the Harvard University School of Public Health reported that 44 percent of respondents had drunk more than five drinks (four for women) consecutively in the previous 2 weeks. About 23 percent had had three or more such episodes during that time (Wechsler et al., 2002).

The reverse implications of these statistics are also important to note. Contrary to the popular misconception that “everybody drinks heavily” in college, the majority of students either abstain or drink moderately. Moreover, alcohol consumption varies by ethnicity. For example, a greater percentage of White and Native American students drink more frequently and more heavily than those from other ethnic backgrounds (Presley et al., 1995, 1996). Black students at predominantly Black or predominantly White colleges consume less alcohol than White students (Meilman et al., 1995). As college and university populations increasingly reflect the significant demographic changes now taking place in the United States, targets and strategies for alcohol efforts may also need modification.

Although high-risk drinkers are a minority in all ethnic groups, their behavior is far from a harmless “rite of passage.” In fact, it has pervasive consequences that compel our attention.

The most serious consequence of high-risk college drinking is death. The U.S. Department of Education has evidence that at least 84 college students have died since 1996 because of alcohol poisoning or related injury—and they believe the actual total is higher because of incomplete reporting. When alcohol-related traffic crashes and off-campus injuries are taken into consideration, it is estimated that over 1,400 college students die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries. Additionally, over 500,000 full-time students sustain nonfatal unintentional injuries and 600,000 are hit or assaulted by another student who has been drinking (Hingson et al., 2002). Administrators are well aware of the burden alcohol presents to the campus environment. For example, in a recent survey of 330 colleges and universities (Anderson and Gadaleto, 2001), 60 percent of administrators thought that alcohol played a significant role in violent behavior and damage to residence halls. Fifty-five percent believed it was implicated in damage to other campus property; 40 percent in physical injury; 54 percent in campus policy violations; 36 percent in lack of academic success; and 30 percent in student attrition.

In addition, the 1997, 1999, and 2001 Harvard surveys found that the majority of students living in dorms and Greek residences who do not drink excessively still experience day-to-day problems as a result of other students’ misuse of alcohol (Wechsler et al., 1998, 2000, 2002). The prevalence of these “secondhand effects” varies across campuses according to how many students on the campus engage in high-risk drinking. Effects include:

  • Interrupted study or sleep (43 to 70 percent);
  • Need to care for a drunken student (37 to 57 percent);
  • Insults or humiliation (20 to 36 percent);
  • Serious arguments or quarrels (14 to 23 percent);
  • Unwanted sexual advances (15 to 23 percent);
  • Property damage (7 to 16 percent);
  • Personal attacks such as pushing, hitting, or assault (6 to 11 percent); and
  • Sexual assault or date rape (1 percent).

“When you get down to it,” says Dr. Judith Ramaley, former president of the University of Vermont, “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.”

Other college and university presidents on the Panel voice similar concerns. As University of Notre Dame President Edward A. Malloy reflects, “I’ve lived in college dormitories for much of my adult life, so I know firsthand the impact irresponsible drinking has on the quality of residential life… reducing alcohol-related harm is clearly central to our mission.” Dr. Susan Resneck Pierce, president of the University of Puget Sound, mentions alcohol’s negative effects on “the civility of campus life,” as well as its subversive impact on educational outcomes. “Nationally, excessive student drinking has led to missed classes, poor academic performance, and student attrition. Unfortunately, some campuses have responded to this by no longer scheduling early morning and Friday classes. I believe that these accommodations—along with grade inflation and the failure of some faculty to hold their students accountable for poor academic performance—have contributed to excessive student drinking.”

President James E. Lyons, Sr., of California State University at Dominguez Hills, notes that, for his predominantly commuter student population, quality of life is not the issue. “If our students are having problems with alcohol, they go home and punch their own walls, not ours. But we need to identify and refer such students to counseling or treatment, because drinking problems can have an impact on our educational mission.” Dr. William Jenkins, former chancellor and current president of the Louisiana State University System, once received that phone call in the middle of the night that every president dreads, telling him that a student had died from an alcohol overdose at a party. He emphasizes, “Student safety is of paramount importance, and if we save one life, our [alcohol prevention] program is working.”

“Universities are often afraid to reveal that they have a problem with alcohol, although everyone knows it anyway,” says Dr. Robert L. Carothers, president of the University of Rhode Island (URI). “People are also afraid of legal liability issues, which emerging case law suggests are not a problem, and of angering key constituencies. But we’ve seen important benefits from focusing on the problem [at URI] 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. It’s become clear to me that people are hungry for strong statements about values. I know that support for me personally has grown with my reputation for taking strong ethical positions and sticking with them.”


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Historical document
Last reviewed: 9/23/2005

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