Why you need to educate students about alcohol policy and policy violations

Difficulty responding to a "work hard, play hard" attitude

About 1.2 million college students between the ages of 18 and 22 will drink alcohol on any given day, according to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Directors of wellness centers and alcohol and drug programming offices report that students at their institutions adopt a “work hard, play hard” mentality to balance academic and social commitments.

Students primarily use alcohol to cope with stress that results from their rigorous academic, extracurricular, and social schedules. Some students, especially freshmen, use alcohol to minimize feelings of social anxiety that result from trying to meet friends and from being in an unfamiliar environment.

Learn how your colleagues respond to alcohol policy violations

While every college and university has an alcohol policy in place to promote a positive and safe campus climate around alcohol, many institutions struggle to respond effectively to alcohol policy violations. These sanctions are intended to encourage students to change their drinking behavior. Explore three ways to make your alcohol policy education more effective, including:

  1. Reach students before classes start
  2. Keep orientation programs short and sweet
  3. Establish a point system to promote clarity for all levels of violation

1. Reach students before classes start

The riskiest student behavior occurs during the “red zone,” or orientation and their first-year fall semester. To get ahead of the “red zone,” many institutions email students and their parents about alcohol expectations and norms before school begins. Students may also be required to complete AlcoholEDU or a similar program and read institutional policies before arriving on campus.

Student affairs administrators at Hazel University*, a large, public research university in the Northeast, also email 10-minute screening surveys to gather individual data on student alcohol use and perception. Alcohol coordinators enter these responses into the students’ medical files and then invite students with concerning behaviors to the health center before classes begin. Pre-orientation surveys provide baseline comparisons for future surveys.

2. Keep orientation programs short and sweet

Residential life staff and senior college administrators should clearly describe alcohol policies on the first night of orientation and present all possible consequences for future violations. Short and purposeful student orientation events on alcohol policy retain students’ attention and effectively convey policies and violation consequences.

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In the past, Hazel University hosted a paid speaker and upperclass student panel during orientation, but the institution determined that this introduction did not provide sufficient information to justify costs. Now, the university offers a 10-minute explanation of campus policy with the president and dean of students. Administrators provide an authoritative presence while resident assistants demonstrate to first-year students that alcohol abuse is not part of campus culture.

3. Establish a point system to promote clarity for all levels of violations

Educating students about the alcohol policy is the first, and arguably, easiest step to take. Where institutions are having the most difficulty is responding to alcohol violations in a way that prompts students to change their high-risk behavior. In general, increasing the severity of sanctions incrementally by starting with education, then parental notification and loss of privileges (e.g., off-campus housing), and finally ending with medical leave can prompt students to become increasingly cautious with each violation.

Point system in practice at Hagerman College*

Hagerman College, a small, private liberal arts college in the Northeast, implemented a point system after concluding that putting students on probation did not change their behavior. A point system clearly conveys expectations and is easy for students to understand. As a result, students become more cautious as points accumulate against them. This type of policy violation system combines well with initial educational meetings and increasingly severe sanctions to demonstrate school firmness on alcohol policy.

A point system functions best at small institutions (i.e., fewer than 3,000 undergraduates) as record-keeping and individual student meetings can burden larger schools. Student affairs administrators at Hagerman College record student points in the Maxient™ Conduct Manager software.

Below is a sample points grid based on Hagerman College’s system. To address concerns about inflexibility, Hagerman College administrators remind staff that they have significant discretion for point assignment.

Sample Alcohol Policy Violation Points Grid


Recidivism rate as a success metric

To evaluate the success of their alcohol violation point system, Hagerman College measured the recidivism rate. Low recidivism demonstrates that students are making healthy and legal decisions. At the college, 400 students received sanctions for low-level initial violations, but fewer than 10 students (or 2.5%) committed a second violation.

If institutions demonstrate that they do not tolerate dangerous behavior and educate students to make smarter choices, staff very rarely see students commit multiple violations. For students with multiple violations, alcohol abuse is usually a symptom of a larger problem. Hagerman College is considering adding mandatory counseling for students with seven or more points.

* The names of the institutions have been changed.

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