College Factors That Influence Drinking
CHERYL A. PRESLEY, Ph.D., PHILIP W. MEILMAN, Ph.D.,
and JAMI S. LEICHLITER, Ph.D.
Student Health Programs, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois
ABSTRACT. Objective: The purpose of this article is to examine
the aspects of collegiate environments, rather than student characteristics,
that influence drinking. Unfortunately, the existing literature is scant on
this topic. Method: A literature review of articles primarily published
within the last 10 years, along with some earlier "landmark" studies
of collegiate drinking in the United States, was conducted to determine institutional
factors that influence the consumption of alcohol. In addition, a demonstration
analysis of Core Alcohol and Drug Survey research findings was conducted to
further elucidate the issues. Results: Several factors have been shown
to relate to drinking: (1) organizational property variables of campuses, including
affiliations (historically black institutions, women's institutions), presence
of a Greek system, athletics and 2- or 4-year designation; (2) physical and
behavioral property variables of campuses, including type of residence, institution
size, location and quantity of heavy episodic drinking; and (3) campus community
property variables, including pricing and availability and outlet density. Studies,
however, tend to look at individual variables one at a time rather than in combination
(multivariate analyses). Some new analyses, using Core Alcohol and Drug Survey
data sets, are presented as examples of promising approaches to future research.
Conclusions: Given the complexities of campus environments, it continues
to be a challenge to the field to firmly establish the most compelling institutional
and environmental factors relating to high-risk collegiate drinking. (J. Stud.
Alcohol, Supplement No. 14: 82-90, 2002)
IT HAS BEEN almost 50 years since Straus and Bacon (1953) first reported that
alcohol on college campuses presented problems to college and university administrators.
More recently, in 1989, a survey found that more than 67% of college presidents
rated alcohol misuse to be a "moderate" or "major" problem
on their campuses (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1990).
More to the point, college presidents described alcohol misuse as the single
greatest threat to the quality of campus life. This concern has not diminished
since the passage of the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act of 1986 and its
Amendments of 1989, as evidenced by media reports that have inundated the public
of sexual assaults, campus violence, personal injury and deaths where alcohol
was cited as a factor in the incidents.
Researchers report that approximately 44% of full-time students at 4-year institutions
engage in "binge" or heavy episodic drinking patterns (Wechsler et
al., 1994) as do 45.6% of full- and part-time students at 2- and 4-year institutions
(Presley et al., 1998). In addition, the Monitoring the Future Study (Johnston
et al., 1998a) reported that there have been some notable increases in illicit
drug use among American junior and senior high school students since 1992. Many
of these students will attend college within a few years and will bring these
difficulties with them.
For years, one response that college and university officials offered regarding
drinking on campus was that alcohol use and even misuse was a developmental
rite of passage for students and that, if left alone, these students would pass
through these stages of involvement with alcohol without great injury or harm
(Jessor and Jessor, 1975). More recently, institutions of higher education have
focused on education and intervention strategies oriented to individual students
(Wallack and DeJong, 1995). This response has reflected the view that those
who experience problems do so because of some genetic or characterological deficit,
and if ignorance were removed about the effects and dangers of alcohol use or
the enforcement of laws and policies, problematic alcohol use would diminish.
But, as former deputy drug czar Herbert Kleber stated so clearly, "Education
is the cure to the extent that ignorance is the disease" (personal communication,
1989). Here we are more than 10 years later, and we have not "cured"
the problem, despite numerous educational programs.
"There is still a great deal to be learned about university
campus culture as it interacts with demographic and personality
variables to influence the use and abuse of alcohol,"
Brennan et al. (1986, p. 490) asserted. In their research,
Shore et al. (1983) also surmised that campus factors can
affect drinking habits of college students. They found that
resistance to peer pressure to drink and the desire to refrain
from drinking were more intensely related to college environmental
variables than to personal background variables.
Moos (1976) found that although many individuals can resist
environmental influences, some collegiate environments
are powerful enough to influence almost everyone. Shore
et al. (1983) suggested that the recognition that campus life
is isolated or in some way insulated from the "real world"
has been one of the most important factors in focusing on
immediate environmental variables over earlier developmental
influences such as religious orientation or parents' drinking
habits. This focus is consistent with the Core Survey
finding that almost one-fifth of students in college report
taking their first drink after reaching age 18 (Presley et al.,
The relationship between environment and behavior is
complex; adding to this complexity, collegiate environments
can no longer be typified as a single culture nor can students
be described as homogeneously as in years past
(Upcraft, 1999). More nontraditional students are attending
college, and the percentage of ethnic minority students is
steadily increasing (National Center for Education Statistics,
1994). In addition, there is a growing recognition that
what constitutes a campus environment can be difficult to
describe. The boundaries of this environment have become
less clear because of the increasing recognition that students
receive their communications and messages from a
vast number of sources and multiple competing interests.
Distance learning, nearby but "off-campus" housing, the
local business environment adjacent to campus and the
Internet all blur the outlines of where the campus environment
begins and ends. DeJong et al. (1998) asserted that
there were at least five institutional and community factors
that constitute the environment of college for today's student.
Astin (1993) and Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) identified
more than 200 "environmental" or factor variables
that have varying degrees of influence on individual college
students. Many of these factors have been studied independently
as well as in relationship to each other.
Although no one conceptual model exists that links college
environmental factors with individual student characteristics,
the scope of this article is to identify and present
relevant moderating environmental variables that have been
shown to impact on individual student behavior with regard
to alcohol use and misuse. For organizational purposes,
this article presents three categories under which
many of the environmental variables of concern can be subsumed:
physical property variables, organizational property
variables and campus/community variables.
In this article, we (1) review and synthesize what is currently
known about collegiate environmental factors that
impact on the quality of academic life and that influence
alcohol use and misuse and (2) identify methodological and
research limitations of existing literature and make recommendations
for future directions. We do so with the following
- Individuals are not passive members of the university or college
community. The university campus culture interacts with
personality and experiential variables to influence the use and
misuse of alcohol.
- The conditions that influence alcohol in the campus environment
can be thought of as deriving from a number of properties
of campuses, and each of these categories of variables has
an impact on student behaviors.
- The categories are not mutually exclusive. Prevention efforts
directed to decrease risk for alcohol misuse and illicit substance
use and to enhance protective factors must be based on
an understanding of how the categories of variables interact
with each other.
Reviewed in this chapter are articles primarily published
within the last 10 years, although some earlier "landmark"
studies are also cited. The studies are limited to colleges
and universities in the United States but include both 2-
and 4-year institutions. Although the focus is on high quality
multi-institutional studies using random and representative
samples, single college studies are included if they add
significantly to an understanding of the research question
at hand or point to new research directions. Studies include
those that are more descriptive in nature as well as some
that have employed more sophisticated analyses. Some new
types of analyses, using Core Alcohol and Drug Survey
data sets, are presented as examples of promising approaches
to future research.
Variables germane to this discussion are organized into
the following categories: (1) organizational property variables
of campuses, including affiliations (historically black
institutions, women's institutions), presence of a Greek system,
athletics and 2- or 4-year designation; (2) physical
and behavioral property variables of campuses, including
type of residence, institution size, location and quantity of
high-risk/heavy episodic drinking; and (3) campus community
property variables, including pricing and availability
and outlet density.
Organizational property variables of campuses
Historically black colleges and other racial/ethnic findings. After
reviewing various outcomes of those who attend predominantly black or single-gender
institutions, Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) found that attendance at a predominantly
black institution is not associated with any educational disadvantage. To the
contrary, they found that some of the benefits included "larger increases
in certain areas of cognitive development, brighter prospects for completing
a baccalaureate degree program, and indirectly, the higher post-college earning
associated with degree completion" (p. 638).
In two multicollege studies, Meilman et al. (1994, 1995) found that black students
were much less likely to indulge in alcohol and high-risk/heavy episodic drinking
practices than were white students. In addition, they experienced far fewer
damaging consequences of heavy drinking. Although the first published article
investigated the differences in drinking habits of more than 40,000 college
students, it did not answer the question regarding the drinking habits of black
students at historically black institutions and black students at predominantly
white institutions. An additional related question for the second article was
whether the drinking habits of white students at historically black institutions
differed from that of white students at predominantly white institutions. The
methodology for the second study entailed a matched sample that included 12,351
students6,222 at 14 historically black institutions and 6,129 at 14 predominantly
white institutions. The second analysis, which corroborated the earlier research
findings of distinct ethnic differences in the use of alcohol among college
students, found that those differences asserted themselves regardless of institutional
setting and that drinking and high-risk/heavy episodic drinking levels at historically
black institutions were significantly lower than at predominantly white institutions.
Additional studies using Core Survey findings have
shown that Native American/Alaska Native students and
white students use the most alcohol, black and Asian students
use the least and Latino/Latina students are in a middle
range (Presley et al., 1993a, 1995, 1996a,b).
Thus, research supports the view that there are institutional
factors based on race that may enhance or reduce
excessive alcohol use. Predominantly white institutions will
show more problematic alcohol use, and historically black
institutions will show less.
Women's colleges. Similarly, Pascarella and Terenzini
(1991) reported that attendance at single-gender institutions
provided educational benefits "less likely on coeducational
campuses. These findings held constant even with student
background characteristics and institutional selectivity held
constant" (p. 638). Consistent with this report, it is not
surprising that additional research has found the following
with regard to alcohol use on these types of campuses.
Although many studies indicated that women generally
consume less alcohol, engage in high-risk/heavy episodic
drinking episodes less frequently and experience fewer negative
consequences than men in institutions of higher education
(Engs and Hanson, 1985; Presley et al., 1993a, 1995,
1996a,b; Wechsler et al. 1994), the first study to examine
the prevalence of women's drinking and the correlates of
women's drinking at women's colleges was Wechsler et al.
(1995). This study of 508 women found that women at
women's colleges engaged in high-risk drinking (defined
as four or more drinks in a row in the previous 2 weeks)
less frequently and had fewer alcohol-related problems than
women at coeducational institutions.
In a data analysis of six women's colleges conducted
for this article with a sample size of 1,311 students, the
Core Institute found that heavy episodic drinking (defined
as five or more drinks in a row in the previous 2 weeks) on
these campuses ranged from a low of 23% of the women
to a high of 42%, with a mean of 32%. The percentage of
women who were classified as frequent drinkers (three or
more times per week) ranged from 5.6% to 20.9%.
By way of comparison, overall data for women in 1992-1994 (Presley et al.,
1996a) indicated that 14.0% of the women at the 89 colleges surveyed were frequent
drinkers (three or more times per week), with 30.7% of the women reporting episodes
of heavy episodic drinking within the previous 2 weeks. Therefore, the aggregated
numbers for women do not look very different from those of the six women's colleges.
However, Core Survey data on women from 1997 from a further analysis of data
from Presley et al. (1998) show a frequent drinking rate of 17.4% and a heavy
episodic drinking rate of 38.3%, numbers that are substantially higher than
for the sample at women's colleges.
Given the inconsistency in national findings, it is not
clear whether there is a meaningful distinction in the drinking
rates of women attending women's colleges as compared
with those attending coeducational colleges. More
research is necessary to determine conclusively whether attendance
at women's colleges mitigates against excessive
Presence of a Greek system. A number of single institution studies have
found that members of Greek organizations are more likely to drink compared
with other students (Klein, 1989; Lo and Globetti, 1993; Werner and Greene,
1992). Each of these studies reported that Greek affiliationliving in
a Greek house, belonging to a Greek organization, intent to join the Greek systemis
correlated with higher rates of heavy episodic drinking, frequency of drinking
and negative consequences. The findings of these studies have been corroborated
by data from the College Alcohol Study (Wechsler, 1995) and the Core Institute
(Cashin et al., 1998; Presley et al., 1993b). Wechsler found that 60% of the
fraternity members had been heavy episodic drinkers in high school and more
than 75% of fraternity residents who had not engaged in heavy episodic drinking
episodes in high school became heavy episodic drinkers in college. Greek living
did make a greater significant contribution than other variables that were studied.
Cashin et al. (1998) found that fraternity and sorority
leaders used more alcohol than nonmembers and members
alike and speculated that these leaders are participating in
setting drinking norms for their groups. An earlier data
analysis (Presley et al., 1993b) found that Greek house residents
had extraordinarily high levels of problematic alcohol
use and negative consequences compared with students
It should be noted that although the presence of a Greek
system contributes to the percentage of heavy episodic drinkers
on campus, there are also a number of institutions that
have no Greek system and yet also have a high percentage
of heavy episodic drinkers.
Athletics. Again multi-institutional research (Leichliter
et al., 1998; Wechsler et al., 1997) has found that student
involvement in athletics, whether partially involved or as a
leader, is positively associated with heavy episodic drinking.
Athletes were more likely to experience negative consequences
of alcohol misuse and illicit substance use than
In addition, it has been demonstrated that athletes who
are members of a sorority or fraternity are at even greater
risk (Meilman et al., 1999). However, no study to date has
looked at the issue in terms of percentages of campuses
that have Greek organizations and athletic groups and how
these relate to overall campus alcohol consumption and campus
culture. Theoretically speaking, institutions that have
high percentages of athletes and members of Greek organizations
should demonstrate heavier alcohol consumption and
Two- or four-year designation. Data from four 2-year
cohorts of colleges and universities show that students at
2-year institutions reported lower average weekly consumption
levels and a lower percentage of heavy episodic drinking
than students at 4-year schools (Presley et al., 1993a,
Physical and behavioral property variables of campuses
Type of residence. Fromme and Ruela (1994) found that although parents
and peers were both influential in defining standards of drinking, peers were
more influential in terms of affecting actual drinking behavior. The authors
suggested that normative influences vary for college students depending on where
they reside while attending school.
We speculate that, in fact, students may seek out certain
environments based on their expectancies of alcohol use.
In a survey of 606 Rutgers University undergraduates,
O'Hare (1990) found that there were differences in drinking
rates depending on the living arrangements. Commuters
living at home were more likely to be lighter drinkers
than students who lived on campus. O'Hare found that men
were twice as likely to be heavy drinkers if they lived on
campus. However, women living independently had higher
rates of heavy drinking than women living on campus or at
their parents' homes. These findings appear to dovetail
nicely with Harford et al.'s (1983) study, which found that
the number of roommates was significantly related to drinking
contexts. Students living at home were more likely to
drink in nightclubs and bars, and residence hall students
were more likely to drink in large, mixed-gender groups in
Differences in drinking levels were found for Core Survey
respondents based on whether they lived in on- or offcampus
housing (Presley et al., 1996a). The average number
of drinks per week and the number of heavy episodic drinking
episodes were all higher for on-campus residents as
compared with off-campus residents, and students with the
highest levels of consumption and heavy episodic drinking
episodes were those who lived in a fraternity or sorority
house (Presley et al., 1993b).
Size and region. Research from the Core Institute has
shown that size of institution is generally associated with
quantity of alcohol consumed, with students at smaller
schools consuming greater amounts of alcohol on an average
weekly basis than students at larger schools (Presley et
al., 1993a, 1995, 1996a,b). It has also been consistently
shown that students at schools in the Northeast section of
the United States consume more alcohol and have higher
episodic drinking rates than students in other sections of
the country, with the North Central region not far behind
(Presley et al., 1993a, 1995, 1996a,b). These sections of
the country also show the highest figures for occasional
heavy use and annual and 30-day prevalence rates among
young adults generally (Johnston et al., 1998b).
Behavioral variable: Quantity of heavy episodic drinking.
Data from the College Alcohol Study (Wechsler et al.,
1999) of full-time students at 114 four-year institutions indicated
that the median number of drinks consumed by all
students regardless of drinking status was 1.5, yet the median
number of drinks per week for frequent heavy episodic
drinkers was 14.5 drinks per week. One in five
students, it was found, was a frequent heavy episodic
drinker. This study showed that behavioral norms for alcohol
consumption varied widely among students and across
colleges. This suggests the utility of looking at the characteristics
of institutions where heavy episodic drinking takes
place. Campuses where heavy episodic drinking takes place
are different environments because of the behavior of the
students, and therefore it is useful to learn more about them.
To date, there has been little published on the characteristics of institutions
that have high heavy episodic drinking rates versus the characteristics of schools
with low and moderate heavy episodic drinking rates. For purposes of this article
and to further a discussion about this college context variable, the following
analyses were conducted for this article using information from the Core Institute.
In this secondary data analysis we used data from 201 institutions across the
nation that administered the Core Alcohol and Drug Survey between 1995 and 1998.
The institutions were representative geographically and voluntarily chose to
survey their campuses; the students within each institution were sampled in
a random and representative fashion. This particular aggregation of data contains
93,536 students. This analysis is presented for demonstration and informational
purposes based on suggestions from Patrick O'Malley, a fellow participant in
the NIAAA-sponsored program that resulted in this supplement and a consultant
in the writing of this article.
The Core Survey is designed to assess various factors
related to college students' use of alcohol and other drugs.
The four-page questionnaire addresses 39 topics in content
areas such as demographics, usage patterns, perceptions of
the campus environment, campus climate, campus violence
and negative consequences that result from substance use.
Reliability and validity data are available and have been
described elsewhere (Presley et al., 1993a).
Schools with various heavy episodic drinking rates were
identified by determining the overall heavy episodic drinking
percentage at each school and then assigning the lowest
third of schools to the low heavy episodic drinking (Low
HED) category, the middle third to the medium heavy episodic
drinking (Medium HED) category and the highest
third to the high heavy episodic drinking (High HED) category.
For purposes of this presentation, we are operationally
defining "heavy episodic drinking" as the consumption
of five or more drinks in a row in the previous 2 weeks.
The percentage of students who reported heavy episodic
drinking in the previous 2 weeks ranged from 9.5% to 39.1%
in Low HED schools, from 39.2% to 51.5% in Medium
HED schools and from 51.6% to 71.3% in High HED
We then looked at the variable "size of institution" to see how the
different types of schools aligned themselves. Using a chi-square analysis,
we found no significant relationship with this variable (unlike the relationship
with quantity measures noted above). The same was true for public/private status
and for immediate location (inner city, other urban, suburban, rural, other).
However, there were significant differences by regional location, with the majority
of High HED schools located in the Northeast, a plurality of Medium HED schools
located in the North Central states and a plurality of Low HED schools located
in the South (Table 1).
We then conducted several analyses of variance looking
at a number of items on the Core Alcohol and Drug Survey
to see how the proportion of students in various demographic
categories varied among the Low HED, Medium
HED and High HED schools (Table 2).
Based on these univariate analyses, some statements can
be made about the presence of different types of groups
that constitute the campus culture. Compared with Low
HED and Medium HED schools, at those schools designated
as High HED, more students on average belong to a
fraternity or sorority, more of the student body is underage,
more of the students are white, more of the students live on
campus and more fraternity housing is available.
In this brief demonstration on the single variable called
heavy episodic drinking, there is support for some of the
research findings both in single institution studies and multiinstitution
studies with regard to demographic and environmental
factors influencing collegiate drinking. This type of
analysis represents a promising approach that can be employed
with other types of variables or campus drinking
However, it may be useful to take this a step further and conduct multivariate
logistic regressions predicting High HED institutions (versus Low HED and Medium
HED institutions). Such a procedure was performed utilizing the univariate predictors
described in the analysis above. The overall model chi-square was significant
( X2 = 55.06, 6 df, p < .0001), but the only significant predictors
(based on the Wald test and significant odds ratios [ORs] at the 95% confidence
interval) were male gender (OR = 1.05; range: 1.02-1.08) and white race (OR
= 1.18; range: 1.06-1.18).
These analyses indicate that institutions with a larger
proportion of males are 1.05 times more likely to be High
HED institutions. Institutions with a large majority of white
students were approximately 1.2 times more likely to be
High HED institutions.
The same analyses were performed to predict Low HED institutions (versus Medium
HED and High HED). Although the model was significant, even for Low HED institutions,
only male gender and white race were significant predictors. Institutions with
Low HED rates were slightly less likely to have a high percentage of male and
white students. Although previous analyses have indicated that blacks and whites
at historically black institutions consumed less alcohol than blacks and whites
at predominantly white institutions, an analysis was performed to determine
the level of heavy episodic drinking by nonwhites at the three categories of
institutions (Low HED, Medium HED and High HED). A cross-tabulation was performed
between heavy episodic drinking by minority students and the heavy episodic
drinking level of the institution (N = 17,165). The resulting chi-square
was significant ( X2 = 477.30, 2 df, p < .001). The heavy episodic
drinking percentages for nonwhites at the Low HED, Medium HED and High HED institutions
were 23.9%, 32.8% and 43.7%, respectively. Minority students at Low HED, Medium
HED and High HED institutions engaged in heavy episodic drinking practices in
environments that foster that behavior, although their rate of heavy episodic
drinking was lower than that of white students.
Campus community property variables
Every college or university has an institutional culture
that differs from that of every other institution, whether it
is based on student demographics, entrance requirements,
cost, traditions, competitiveness, athletics, size or region of
the country. However, there are some other external environmental
variables that may influence drinking. These factors
include the availability of alcohol, pricing, density of
distribution outlets (i.e., bars and clubs) in the area surrounding
the campus, the social settings where drinking
takes place and campus customs. Such factors all play a
role in shaping the drinking environment for students
(Newman et al., 1991). It is not within the scope of this
discussion to describe student- and peer-related factors that
impact on the drinking environment, but rather to discuss
environmental factors-community availability, pricing,
server density-that affect student drinking behavior. As
Sanford (1962) said, "If we are interested in understanding
the institution, we must identify and appreciate how the
external environment shapes the institution" (p. 73).
Pricing. Using statistical economic simulation techniques,
Chaloupka (1993) found that increases in alcohol beverage
prices would lead to substantial reductions both in the frequency
of youth alcohol consumption and in heavy drinking
among the young. In addition, utilizing the same
technique and six nationally representative data sets, he
found that alcohol use and motor vehicle accident mortality
rates were negatively related to the cost of alcohol and
concluded that college completion rates are positively related
to this cost. Chaloupka found that the effects of excise
tax hikes on drinking exceeded the effects of
establishing the uniform legal drinking age of 21 in all
states studied. In 1998, Chaloupka et al. (1998) expanded
the concept of price and economic impact to include not
only the monetary price of alcoholic beverages, but also a
wide variety of other "costs" of drinking and heavy drinking,
including time spent obtaining alcohol and legal costs
associated with drinking-related behavior. This research
clearly demonstrates that increases in total cost can significantly
reduce consumption and thereby many of the problems
associated with alcohol use and misuse.
Although these studies were not specifically designed
for assessment of university policies, they certainly pose
interesting research questions with regard to pricing issues
in and around the campus environment.
Outlet density and drinking venues. A concept that has
risen to the forefront of the prevention research agenda entails
going beyond some of the previously described factors
related to drinking risk and looking at the environmental
context of drinking (Clapp et al., 2000). Although there is
no standard definition for drinking contexts, Clapp et al.
(p. 141) utilized the Harford (1978) definition: "The antecedents
of alcohol consumption are to be found in the interaction
between the individual and his environment . . . the
consumption of alcoholic beverages is situationally specific,
rather than a trans-situational property of specific individuals"
In their study, Clapp et al. (2000) found that parties, dates and socializing
and being with friends were the most common situations where students reported
their last heavy drinking event took place. (In addition, for males, playing
drinking games increased the likelihood of experiencing alcohol-related problems
in these settings by a factor of five.) Similarly, in a broader national study
of drinking contexts, Hilton (1991) reported that across all types of consumption
patterns, the presence of coworkers, close friends and neighbors increased the
amount of alcohol consumed. Hilton also found that men drank more than did women
in bars and public places as well as at private parties.
Although the Clapp et al. (2000) study is a single institution
collegiate study, it is well constructed and scientifically
rigorous in its methodology. It explores some
contextual variables that may engender risk for students on
college campuses and also identifies protective factors. The
authors strongly suggest that research into college student
drinking should utilize both individual variables as well as
the contextual variables antecedent to drinking.
According to Gruenewald (1999), research has shown three things: (1) population
growth leads to a greater number of alcohol outlets, (2) greater numbers of
outlets relate to greater alcohol use and (3) greater use results in alcoholrelated
problems. Although this research is mainly focused on the community setting,
his description of the community is analogous to that which exists for many
colleges. His research found that, when outlet concentrations increased and
multiple drinking venues existed, both long-term and short-term drinking problems
also increased. His research study is awaiting final publication, but his initial
approaches describing availability, density and server training variables as
community prevention strategies are preliminarily leading to reductions in injury,
assaults and other alcohol-related negative consequences. This approach must
be studied further to assess the impact on college student drinking.
The significance of this research is that bars, parties and
Greek organization events appear to be a popular way for
college students to socialize and engage in alcohol use and
problematic use. Thus there may be some impact on student
drinking if the number of on-campus and near-campus
sites where students can drink can be reduced. Research
suggests that increasing the cost per unit of alcohol would
Conclusion: Research Issues and Implications
There are many unresolved issues with regard to research
in this field but one of the most basic is how to determine
the extent to which student drinking can be attributed to
particular factors in the educational setting. Logically, we
should consider a model of prevention that addresses the
environment, student campus culture and various individual
factors to reduce high-risk alcohol use. In other words, we
need a cogent model that brings all these factors together
to make a complete picture.
Given the complexities of campus environments, and in
defining components of these environments, it is somewhat
difficult to firmly establish what are the most compelling
environmental causative factors. Colleges and universities
are embedded in an extraordinary number of environments
as well as an ever-changing contemporary social scene and
collegiate culture. Confounding the environmental issue,
each college attracts students who choose on an individual
basis to drink or not drink for a variety of reasons that
have no relation to the collegiate environment.
A good deal of research on the collegiate population has
shown that individual characteristics are not always the best
predictors of safe and responsible drinking patterns. Identifying
institutional variables such as size, public or private
control and gender or racial makeup has provided researchers
with an aggregated list of potential predictors. Although
this helps, to date this research has proved to be of limited
value. Rigorous analytical techniques applied to regression
models and structural equation modeling have also contributed
some as well, but not much more than the descriptive
analyses provided by other, simpler studies. On a practical
level, what we know may be interesting, but one cannot
ordinarily use this knowledge to manipulate a college's characteristics
for the sole purpose of changing the college's
One way of approaching the problem would be to attempt
to match or equate college environments in some
respects and see how they compare on other variables. This
approach is workable with only a small number of variables;
the impracticality of matching colleges on many variables
becomes evident quickly when one looks at the
potentially vast array of collegiate characteristics.
Another complicating factor in this line of inquiry relates to variations in
the units of analysis that are employed. Many different units of analysis have
been identified, and these add richness to the field but also complicate the
ability to make firm statements about what is known. For example, a unit of
analysis can be the student, the institution, certain categories of students,
certain types of institutions or particular categories of students within particular
types of institutions. Another unit of analysis issue revolves around measures
of alcohol consumption: Do we use quantity, or frequency, or a categorization
of use based on quantity and frequency? The high-risk/heavy episodic
drinking measure can be identified as four or more drinks in a sitting, five
or more drinks in a sitting or more than five drinks in sitting; and the time
frame for this can be 2 weeks or 30 days, depending on the study. Differing
cut points and time frames can seriously affect the conclusions we reach. Thus,
in multiinstitutional samples where data are aggregated, it is not often easy
and sometimes controversial to determine which units of analysis should be employed.
At the same time, focusing on the simplest unit and focusing on answering one
question at a time do not do justice to the complexity of relationships that
Despite the methodological inconsistencies and variations
in the reported studies, there are commonalties in what
is known. There exists incontrovertible evidence that many
students drink often and some drink to harmful levels. There
is consistent information regarding the negative consequences
of drinking. There are regional differences, racial
differences and gender differences. There are also differences
relating to housing, athletics and Greek organization
affiliation. More emphasis on multivariate techniques may
be necessary to begin to capture the complexity here.
We believe that models need to be developed where the
institution and the individual are examined in relation to
each other. This means identifying relevant variables and
producing study designs based on what is presently known
from the college alcohol literature and also extending our
grasp outward into areas traditionally handled by the fields
of organizational behavior, community psychology, sociology
and social psychology.
To further the discussion in this area and move the field
forward, we offer some additional research suggestions:
- Since outlet density and pricing are shown to be highly correlated
with drinking, studies need to be conducted that look at
these factors with respect to colleges. Specifically, baseline
studies on outlet density and pricing need to be conducted,
and then analyses need to be performed that explore the relationship
between density and pricing on the one hand and the
presence of high heavy episodic drinking schools on the other
- Studies need to be conducted in the area of "self-selection,"
that is, whether students perceive and accurately identify the
"high heavy episodic drinking institutions" and self-select for
matriculation at these institutions.
- Studies need to be conducted as to how prospective students arrive at their
perceptions of institutions as having a high rate of drinking. For example,
are those perceptions based on word of mouth, Playboy magazine rankings
of party schools, alumni reports, current students' reports, general reputation,
accessibility to bars or tolerance of the administration?
- Studies need to be designed that assess the surrounding
community's tolerance of drinking. For example, do the local
outlets have a reputation for "easy carding" policies, penny
"drink nights," ladies nights and other marketing activities
intended to promote excessive drinking targeted at college
- Although research has been conducted in the area of students' perceptions
of other students' drinking, research has not yet been conducted in
the area of perception of the campus' drinking norm relative to other campuses'
drinking norms. In other words, do students perceive their campus as having
higher use, less use or about the same use as other college campuses and how
does this relate to consumption? Such analyses have the potential to explain
some of the variance from an institutional/ environmental context.
- Although the environment and the context of drinking occasions
is important, research that truly seeks to understand the
nature of the problem on campuses must also include individual
variables. For example, aside from perceptions regarding
schools' reputations for heavy episodic drinking, the
availability of alcohol and other factors noted above, what are
students' individual beliefs about alcohol, drinking histories,
developmental expectations and perceptions of risk, which may
increase the probability of high-risk drinking patterns within
the college setting?
The issue is complex, and addressing the problem is
complicated. Models for a solution must be powerful enough
so that we can arrive at cogent, integrated responses that
will help us move forward.
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Philip W. Meilman is with Counseling and Psychological
Services, Gannett: Cornell University Health Services, Ho Plaza, Ithaca, NY
14853- 3101. Correspondence should be sent to him at that address or via email
to email@example.com. Jami S. Leichliter is with the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention, Atlanta, GA.
Last reviewed: 9/23/2005