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College Drinking Prevention - Changing the Culture

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Taking Concrete Action

With the institutional culture defined and the policies in place, the focus must move to concrete action plans. One hopes that the focus of the activity can be forward looking and proactive, not simply reacting to all of the negative behavior and bad consequences. Moreover, institutional resources should be directed toward education, intervention and active programming as well as enforcement.

The most successful strategies to changing student behavior are likely to be multidimensional. As decisions are made about the allocation of resources (time, money, people), the leadership of the institution, together with the expert staff and faculty, should determine how much will be directed toward prevention or harm reduction or direct intervention. They also should consider how much to focus on the needs of students abusing alcohol compared to addressing the needs of those affected by the secondary effects of alcohol abuse. They also will need to balance attention to individuals versus the overall campus environment. These decisions cut across such topics as the involvement of key stakeholders; staffing levels and assignments; program design and delivery; communication campaigns; and event management.

Involving Stakeholders

Addressing the culture of alcohol and changing the behavior of students in relation to their use and abuse of alcohol requires the involvement of virtually the entire campus. The students are key to the process and must be integrally involved; the president must take a leadership role; faculty need to be engaged in many ways; and a coalition of staff is critical.

Perhaps the key stakeholder in all of this effort is the student. Individually, and as a group, they have the opportunity, if not obligation, to be advisors, advocates and activists in bringing about change. In fact, the most successful and sustainable change seems to occur when it is student-dash;driven-led by the students and based on their own self-generated code of behavior—and then, administratively supported (Wechsler, 1995).

There are many ways in which students can engage with this issue (Join Together, 1998). Among the first is holding themselves accountable for complying with the community standards of behavior that have been determined. Having students monitor their own behavior, particularly in the context of student organizations, is not an abdication of the institution's obligations, but rather the basis for them to exercise self-governance and accept their own responsibilities, especially when they serve as social hosts (Gulland, 1994).

Students also can serve as key communicators on this topic through their writing for campus newspapers (Gomberg, 1999). Administrators may wish to reach out to encourage them to adopt an environmental approach to their reporting. By doing so, they will help convey the message that alcohol abuse is not just the problem of the individual student but rather the entire campus community.

And finally, students can be and need to be the initiators of much of the programming offered that does not include alcohol. They know better than any college administrator what type of activity will engage their peers, when and where that activity needs to take place and how best to advertise it to make sure that students are aware of its existence. They can be particularly influential in the first year, or even first semester, in setting the tone for their fellow students. The type of activities they plan for orientation and the environment they create in that critical first month can have a significant influence on the behavior and expectations of the entering students (Upcraft, 1999). Trying to make change without the leadership of students is almost a guarantee of failure.

The key role of the chief executive has been outlined in a most articulate fashion by the Presidents Leadership Group (1997). As colleges and universities move toward implementing the environmental management approach, the role of the president becomes even more important. If basic change at the institutional, community and public policy level is needed, beyond just the education and intervention strategies for individual students, the president must be seen as an involved party. As outlined by the Presidents Leadership Group, presidents must Be Vocal (by openly and publicly acknowledging the problems that exist), Be Visible (by taking an active stand, conveying clear expectations and standards) and Be Visionary (by making alcohol and other drug abuse prevention a priority). In fact, there are 13 specific recommendations for leadership needed from presidents (Presidents Leadership Group, 1997; DeJong, 1998). They should:

  1. Work to ensure that school officials routinely collect data on the extent of the alcohol and other drug problem on campus and to make this information available.
  2. Frame discussions about alcohol and other drug prevention in a context that other senior administrators, faculty, students, alumni, and trustees care about—excellence in education.
  3. Define alcohol and other drug use not as a problem of the campus alone, but of the entire community, which will require community-level action to solve.
  4. Use every opportunity to speak out and write about alcohol and other drug prevention to reinforce it as a priority concern and to push for change.
  5. Work to ensure that all elements of the college community avoid providing "mixed messages" that might encourage alcohol and other drug abuse.
  6. Demonstrate their commitment to alcohol and other drug prevention by budgeting sufficient resources to address the problem.
  7. Appoint a campus-wide task force that (a) includes other senior administrators, faculty, and students, (b) has community representation, and (c) reports directly to the president.
  8. Appoint other senior administrators, faculty, and students to participate in a campus-community coalition that is mandated to address alcohol and other drug issues in the community as a whole.
  9. Lead a broad exploration of their institution's infrastructure and the basic premises of its educational program to see how they affect alcohol and other drug use.
  10. Offer new initiatives to help students become better integrated into the intellectual life of the school, change student norms away from alcohol and other drug use, and make it easier to identify students in trouble with substance use.
  11. Take the lead in identifying ways to effect alcohol and other drug prevention through economic development in the community.
  12. Be involved, as private citizens, in policy change at the State and local level, working for new laws and regulations that will affect the community as a whole.
  13. Participate in State, regional, and national associations to build support for appropriate changes in public policy.

It is naïve, however, to assume that just by having presidential leadership on this issue fundamental change can occur. Faculty members also have a key role to play (Ryan and DeJong, 1998) in areas that traditionally fall to the faculty to determine: the setting of the academic calendar and curriculum design. Engaging faculty may not be as difficult as it could otherwise seem. A survey conducted by the Core Institute showed that more than 90 percent of faculty and staff are concerned about the impact of students' alcohol and other drug use (Cited in DeJong, 1998).

One of the first steps that faculty can take is to make sure the academic calendar supports the full engagement of students in the intellectual life of the institution. Classes should be held Monday through Friday, not ending by Thursday; exams should be given throughout the week, including Friday, to keep students fully engaged in their academic pursuits. Similarly, the structure of orientation for new students and commencement week activities for seniors should be examined in the context of the social scene that may emerge.

Faculty also can infuse their curriculum with information related to alcohol and other drug use. While faculty must remain free to determine the content and structure of their courses, there are many ways in which curricula examples can be tied to the topics of alcohol and other drug use. There are a variety of pedagogical techniques, as well, that can actively engage students in this area (Ryan and DeJong, 1998). While it may be obvious to see how alcohol topics can be infused in many curricula (e.g., hotel administration, nutrition, and food science), there are many ways in other areas of study as well to include specific topics or use examples that may help educate students.

Finally, faculty can be involved in this issue through their engagement with students beyond the formal setting of the classroom. Many campuses now have faculty and their families living in residence (Shroeder, 1999), permitting them to bridge the gap between the intellectual and social environments on campus. Increasingly, campuses are realizing that faculty need to be involved with students beyond the classroom to provide the positive support and guidance many students need at this critical developmental stage of their lives.

Staffing

One of the key decisions college administrators face is the amount and level of staffing to direct toward the university's efforts. Too often the issue is confined only to health education professionals, or residence life staff or perhaps deans of students. In fact, a coalition of staff is needed for effective action, especially if the institution is taking a multifaceted or environmental approach in addressing it. Health education professionals are essential to the effort, but they need linkages with student activity professionals and Greek and residence life staffs to successfully impact the way students spend their time. They also need to connect with clinical staff in their health centers to be able to identify those most in need of intervention. And they need to link with campus police and judicial staff to connect appropriate interventions with those who identify students with alcohol problems because of their campus violations.

In addition to forming a coalition to address this issue, it is important that the leaders of any campus-wide effort have direct access to the president as well as control of or access to financial resources to effect change. Often this requires a person to be in a nontraditional reporting position; but if institutional change is to happen, it cannot be led by a staff person buried deep in the organization.

Programming

The type and amount of social programming play a significant role in students' use and abuse of alcohol. One of the most contentious issues is the creation of a campus pub, especially on a residential campus that mostly serves students of a traditional age. While one can argue that offering such a program on campus provides greater oversight to the environment in which students will drink, one also must recognize the host liability the institution is assuming with this role (Gulland, 1994). In addition, such program support raises real issues about allocation of resources, especially when only a quarter of the students may be able to take advantage of such a facility. On the other hand, many programs are supported (intercollegiate athletics could be cited as one; campus theatre another) in which only a small portion of the students participate directly. The final decision of offering a campus pub must result from the full understanding of the campus climate and approach to alcohol use and abuse.

Less controversial, perhaps, is the institution's support for social activities for students that do not involve alcohol. In fact, most institutions offer scores of such activities any given week; however, what the students appear to be seeking is a high-energy, social and recreational program that follows their biological clock, not that of the staff who must oversee it. Several institutions (e.g., West Virginia, UNC) have been very successful in offering all-night activities (Lofstead, 1998) or different venues to attract student interest. Key to the success in any of these social programs is the role that students play in taking the lead and sponsoring such events (Schroeder, 1999).

Communication Campaigns

One of the areas undergoing the greatest debate in the field of alcohol and other drug prevention is the direction and philosophy underlying media and communication campaigns. The traditional efforts featuring the egregious results of alcohol abuse (e.g., death, serious injury, rape, etc.) are being countered by the social norms approach (e.g., emphasizing behavior that is typical of the student population, not the worst-case examples). Moreover, some institutions still focus on first-hand effects of alcohol abuse while others are trying to motivate change by empowering those who are victims of the secondary effects. Understanding the fundamental principles of these various approaches is important to determine how compatible various communication campaigns may be.

For example, some professionals wonder if all the attention to the negative effects of binge drinking, and the constant discussion about those students who consume 4-5 drinks in a single setting establishes a false norm among the broader student body (Gose, 1997). Instead, some will argue (Perkins and Berkowitz, 1986; Berkowitz, 1998; Johannessen, 1999) that more change can result from emphasizing the moderate behavior demonstrated by most students. For example, in 1989, 45 percent of the undergraduates at Northern Illinois University indicated they consumed five or more drinks the last time they ‘partied.’ Yet, when asked about their friends' drinking patterns, students pegged the proportion that drank five or more drinks at 70 percent (Gose, 1997). After an extensive campaign informing the students what in fact was the level of alcohol consumption, Northern Illinois experienced two changes. The students' perception of the degree of campus drinking had dropped by more than a third in six years. Moreover, their actual consumption also fell by more than a third.

Students tend to overestimate other students' use of alcohol. While only 2 percent of students perceived that the average student abstained altogether from alcohol use, in fact 16 percent abstained (Join Together, 1998). Similarly, surveys at the University of Arizona found that 65 percent of students thought their peers consumed six or more drinks in a typical night, while only 32 percent reported drinking at that level. Exposing students to the actual drinking norms resulted in significant decreases not only in the percentage of students who reported having five or more drinks in a single sitting, but also in 30-day use rates. Perhaps most important, the survey found substantial declines in almost all reported negative consequences related to alcohol consumption (Johannessen, 1999).

Indeed, at a conference in the summer of 1999 where campus administrators and health educators and others discussed various campus intervention programs, it appeared that the only measurable change in student behavior related to alcohol consumption came as a result of the social norms campaigns (Marchell, personal communication, 1999).

Another trend in communication campaigns that administrators should investigate and understand thoroughly is the move toward environmental approaches to the issue rather than simply focusing on individual behavior. Advocated by the Presidents Leadership Group of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, the environmental approach moves beyond the traditional focus of education and intervention strategies for individual students and focuses, instead, on institutional, community and public policy levels (DeJong, 1998). At the core of this approach is the fundamental belief that people will make decisions about alcohol and other drug use because of the physical, social, economic and legal environment, not just because of personal or physiological needs. Such a conclusion results in a much broader approach to policy development and program delivery and creates the necessity for coalitions when addressing the management of special events that involve alcohol or the definition of an action plan for the campus.

Managing Special Events

Many campuses today are plagued with large campus gatherings often centered on alcohol. Whether they are football tailgating, fall-fest celebrations, end-of-semester gatherings, homecoming, special weekends or senior celebrations, these large events often develop into traditions in just a few short years. Trying to change these activities requires the highest level of support within the institution, significant resources and a commitment to long-term efforts. Simply mandating that they will not occur can have disastrous results (Cohen, 1997; Zimmerman, 1999). Instead, one must involve students from the very beginning and also be willing to share openly the statistics associated with these large gatherings so people can begin to see for themselves the results that occur. Candid discussion of the effects of such gatherings at least provides the beginning of an understanding about why change is necessary.

Such public discussion of the injuries and judicial actions that result from these un-sponsored, though known, events can make most college legal counsel very nervous, not to mention those in charge of public relations, or even admissions. Yet, without honest assessment of the damage that results, and honest commitment to change, nothing really can happen.

Building Coalitions

A similar risk exists with the development of a campus/community coalition. To partner effectively with the community, the institution needs to talk honestly about the effect of unmonitored serving in the local bars, or the impact of special advertising for alcohol specials, or the overall campus drinking culture. Again, such candor can expose the campus to potential litigation or bad press; yet without it, the attention of the community is almost impossible to obtain.

And the impact of such coalitions is too strong to ignore. In one experiment, two communities in California and one in South Carolina organized citizen-led programs for more effective control of alcohol sales. Involving four key elements (a DUI campaign, a responsible service program, an emphasis on decreasing underage access to alcohol and zoning law reform) these programs had demonstrable impact. Alcohol sales to minors were cut in half and there was a 10 percent reduction in single vehicle accidents in those communities participating in the experiment, compared to three comparison communities serving as control groups(DeJong, 1997). Thus, while the risk for public exposure and distrust exists, the positive impact of taking a stand, reaching out and partnering to make a difference can have a positive outcome (Schroeder, 1999).

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Last reviewed: 9/23/2005


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