Why binge drinking never fades

How should schools combat an omnipresent problem

Despite seemingly endless attempts to reduce binge drinking at colleges and universities, it has remained a major issue through decades that otherwise have seen major changes in higher education, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

By the best estimates, over 40% of college students binge drink, (have four to five drinks per sitting). Alcohol factors into approximately 1,800 student deaths, 600,000 injuries, and nearly 100,000 sexual assaults annually. One in four students suffers academically because of drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Through years of education campaigns, funding, and research directed at reducing this "public-health crisis," students continue to binge drink, and colleges continue to treat alcohol abuse as something that can be fixed through information alone, writes Beth McMurtrie for the Chronicle.

Challenging the binge drinking culture by encouraging students to drink

"Institutions of higher education are still really committed to the idea that if we just provide the right information or the right message, that will do the trick, despite 30 or 40 years of research that shows that's not true," says Robert Saltz, senior research scientist at Prevention Research Center, a segment of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. "The message isn't what changes behavior. Enforcement changes behavior."

Few colleges attack the systems that encourage the drinking: local bars providing access to alcohol, Greek systems, tailgaiting, and spring concerts, says McMurtrie, adding that alumni and boosters often defend such traditions, and some college presidents are reluctant or ill equipped to take them on.

Why are initiatives failing?

The lack of resources, complicated relations between communities and colleges, and simple exhaustion proved tackling college drinking much more difficult than previously thought.

According to researchers at University of Minnesota:

  • Less than half of schools consistently enforce alcohol policies in Greek houses, dorms, and at tailgates;
  • Only 2% try to limit local bar drink specials;
  • Just 7% work to limit alcohol retailers nearby; and
  • Only one-third monitor alcohol sales via compliance checks.

Many institutions fail to implement comprehensive, long-term plans. Entry-level student-affairs or health coordinators usually lead the effort, not top administrators—which can lead to mixed messages from the university.

Campus flyers might say "don't drink," but the campus bookstore sells Jell-O shot molds of the school logo.

Often, universities and colleges face opposition from the alcohol industry while politicians seek favor from the business leaders. The Greek system also represents a "third rail" for presidents—cutting fraternities and sororities may lead to fewer alumni donations as well. Further complicating matters, the houses are typically owned by chapters' national offices—not the school.

"It's fraught with politics," says Lisa Johnson, former managing director of the Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking.

Stronger enforcement works best

According to research, the best ways to curb drinking are punishing students who violate the rules and restricting alcohol access. Students agree that harsher enforcement would modify their behavior. Parental notification, criminal-justice system involvement, or alcohol treatment programs serve as better drinking deterrents than warnings and fines, according to a survey.

A few nonprofits have sprung up to help schools. The NIAAA formed a committee of college-president advisers three years ago and plans to release best-practices for reducing alcohol abuse next year. This year, the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse and Prevention debuted at Ohio State University as a successor to the shuttered federal center. Research will focus on affordable ways to implement strategies.

The Safer California Universities project significantly reduced off-campus drinking and bar attendance by issuing DUI checks, party patrols, local ordinance enforcements, and underage decoys. In Maryland, 11 schools coordinated with state legislators to ban high-proof alcohol. Other schools have cut campus events that encourage drinking, such as all-day tailgates or annual parties.

Institutions are beginning to see the value in control and enforcement, not for their own sake, but rather to support the mission "to educate and provide a supportive learning environment," says Johnson (McMurtrie, Chronicle of Higher Education, 12/2).

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