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Building and Using a Research Agenda

One of the most important steps university administrators can take in this field of alcohol use and abuse is the development and use of research related to their own campus and community. Through existing data sources, surveys and focus groups, and program evaluations, much can be learned about the culture of the campus vis à vis alcohol use and abuse and whether that culture is consistent with the institution's mission and goals. Moreover, information can be gathered about the effectiveness of program interventions and the particular vulnerability of certain populations.

Among the existing data sources, two critical ones exist with admissions and retention. Colleges with high binge drinking rates are more likely to attract students who binged in high school compared to institutions with low binge rates (Wechsler, 1995). Institutions have seen measurable improvements in the academic talent and preparation of their students when they take strong stands to create a campus climate that takes seriously the health and welfare of their students (Schroeder, 1999). It is important then to monitor the academic background, and social experiences, of incoming students to see what type of community is being assembled on a given campus. It also is important to monitor the image that is being presented about the institution through recruitment materials, campus tours and other promotional activities. Direct or indirect clues about the campus atmosphere may be contributing to the types of student being attracted as applicants.

Similarly, monitoring student academic performance, in cohorts or as individuals, can help identify problem areas. It is common knowledge that more frequent involvement with alcohol is accompanied by lower grade point averages (Presley and Meilman, 1992; Presley, et al., 1998). Close examination of individual academic data can help identify students who may be needing help, while monitoring grades and retention data for cohorts of students can help identify student groups, living situations or other factors that may be having deleterious effects.

A third source of existing data exists in many different places on campus, which may prevent its effective use in assessing the campus environment. This data tracks the incidents related to alcohol use and abuse, incidents that may result in judicial actions (institution-wide or within a specific unit), legal or police response, or medical intervention. Developing some method to consolidate this information, while providing appropriate levels of confidentiality, is critical to understanding the true picture of alcohol use and abuse on a campus.

A fourth source of data is the cost related to alcohol abuse. This data also is dispersed across the campus, but can be found in areas related to lost revenue from attrition, physical damage to the facilities, increased expenses in the health center if many students are serious abusers. Very little research is evident in this arena, but some guidance may be available from national studies that are beginning to emerge (Levy, et al., 1999).

Institutions also need to be engaged regularly in assessing their campus environment. Survey research provides a vitally important benchmark, not only for understanding the current state of affairs on a campus, but also as the foundation for any work in social norm campaigns (Perkins, 1999). Campuses need to be able to draw from their own student data to portray an accurate picture related to alcohol use and abuse through this form of communication. Such data should be as specific as possible to the event, or environment, for which change is being sought.

In addition, focus group research can add depth to the trends that are identified in the base-line survey research (Stewart and Shamdasni, 1990; Greenbaum, 1993). This information can be especially important if new programs are being designed or communication strategies are being developed. It will be valuable to go beyond the basic description of behavior or attitudes or consequences to understand the context and influences and motivations that surround such outcomes. That type of understanding can best be gained through focus group research.

Finally, ongoing program evaluations are critical to assess the success and impact of any of the interventions or activities that are developed. It is essential to have the feedback from the students directly, hearing both from those who may have participated as well as those who did not. Through such evaluations, modifications and improvements can be made to the activities to make them better for those who found them of interest already. Changes also can be defined that may allow such initiatives to reach broader audiences. Such program evaluations also are necessary because the interests and attention of student cohorts change within the four years they may be on campus. To design a program once, and assume it will continue to be relevant for years to come, is simply naive.

Through all of the research activities, the institution can develop a factual basis upon which to address this issue, helping to counter institutional denial that a problem exists (if indeed, one is present). The school also can model the type of inquiry and analysis it hopes its students will take forward in their own professional lives and demonstrate the impact of such research on policy development and program design.

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Last reviewed: 9/23/2005

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