Although studies suggest underage drinking, including binge drinking, is on the decline, the fight to curb alcohol consumption among college students is far from finished. The same data that shows that underage binge drinking is down cannot confirm that the situation has gotten significantly better for college-aged Americans.
In general, heavy alcohol consumption among college students impacts a wide variety of people beyond the ones doing the drinking. Those who can be affected negatively include, but are not limited to:
- Parents of those students
- Deans and other university officials
- Campus and local police
- Residents and property owners near the campus
College drinking typically takes place at the following locations: fraternity parties, residence halls, athletic events (tailgating, most likely), off-campus housing areas, bars and restaurants near campus, and in or nearby concert venues. The farther the drinking location is from campus, the higher probability a student will drive drunk or ride with somebody who’s intoxicated as they make their way back toward the school.
Social media, commercials, popular movies, television programs and mainstream songs certainly don’t help when it comes to trying to deglamorize college parties and heavy drinking. When aiming to mitigate alcohol consumption (especially binge drinking) among college students, it takes a concerted and strategic effort from school administrators, counselors and the larger community, including local lawmakers, even.
This article will provide you with several ideas on how to develop a strategy to reduce binge drinking in college, referencing past studies and initiatives. But first, let’s run through a brief history of the legal drinking age as well as some college drinking statistics.
A Brief History On The Minimum Legal Drinking Age In The U.S.
The minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) in the U.S. is currently 21, and has been for quite some time. This age threshold is higher than it is in a majority of other countries, but a number of events have shaped where the law stands today. Individual states have the right to change their MLDA statute, but not without repercussions when it comes to federal funding.
Coming out of the Prohibition in the mid-1930s, many states set their drinking age to 21, but some set the bar lower. From the late-1960s to 1975, nearly 30 states lowered to MLDA to anywhere between 18 and 20 years of age. This was in conjunction with the passing of the 26th amendment in 1971, which lowered the voting age in the U.S. from 21 to 18.
Alcohol-related accidents and drunk driving became a major concern in the mid- and late-1970s. The National Institute of Health found in 1975 that 60 percent of all traffic fatalities involved alcohol, and that alcohol played a role in two-thirds of all accidents involving people between the ages of 16 and 20.
Some states voluntarily started increasing the MLDA in response to this phenomenon, and in 1984, Congress passed and President Ronald Regan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. This law required all states to raise the drinking age to 21 or else face a 10 percent loss in federal highway funding. By 1995, all 50 states and Washington, D.C. complied.
Several groups, such as the National Youth Rights Association, have made efforts sporadically since the late-1990s to get the MLDA lowered, but none has been able to generate significant traction on state and national levels. Arguably, the effect a lowered drinking age would have on college campuses and their student bodies across the country is what’s keeping the current MLDA intact.
College Binge Drinking Facts And Statistics
Some parents may write off college drinking as just something the kids get to experiment with and get out of their system during that period of their lives, but some alarming college drinking statistics tell the tale of why more concern and attention should be paid to this issue.
- More than 1,800 students die annually from alcohol-related injuries, mostly in auto accidents.
- Nearly 600,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 suffer an unintended injury every year under the influence of alcohol, while nearly 700,000 students in that age group are assaulted by a student that has been drinking.
- About 97,000 students each year between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-fueled sexual assault or date rape.
- Each year, an estimated 400,000 college students 24 and younger have unprotected sex.
Besides the dangers of death, injury, alcohol poisoning and sexual assault, college students who drink heavily also have the potential to:
- Miss class
- Fall behind on coursework
- Do poorly on exams or papers
- Struggle with grades
- Vandalize property on or near campus
- Get into fights
- Experience a black-out
- Drive under the influence
- Suffer long-term cognitive impairment
- Suffer rifts with family members, friends and in other relationships
College drinking impacts more individuals than simply the ones who either attend or are employed by the institution. It’s common for residents near a college campus to suffer a lower quality of life due to nearby students being responsible for noise disturbances, vandalism, unintentionally damaged property and other setbacks.
On the bright side of the numbers, however, researchers estimate that 16,500 young lives were saved from 1975 to 1996 due to the minimum drinking age being raised state by state, and ultimately nationwide.
Is College Binge Drinking On The Decline?
A 2015 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) presents some college drinking and underage drinking facts that are very insightful.
Underage alcohol consumption decreased 21 percent from 2002 to 2013, while underage binge drinking dropped 26 percent. However, a closer look reveals that children on the lower end of the 12- through 20-year-olds in the survey were responsible for the drop, not drinking nearly as much as their predecessors. The rate of college-aged drinkers has stayed roughly the same during that period, though.
A little more than 14 percent of underage people reported having engaged in binge drinking within 30 days prior to the survey, down from 20 percent in 2002, but binge drinking among college students was much higher.
The rate of binge drinking for 18- to 20-year-olds has stayed between 39 and 44 percent over the last two decades, according to SAMHSA. Another way of looking at this is in any given month, about 40 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds will binge drink at least once.
Nearly 60 percent of college-aged respondents overall said they had consumed at least some alcohol within 30 days before taking the survey. The survey also found that alcohol remained the primary substance used by anybody 20 years or younger, ahead of tobacco, marijuana and pharmaceutical drugs.
Additional Binge Drinking Facts
Earlier SAMHSA studies have found that binge drinking is noticeably more prevalent among full-time college students than it is with part-time students or non-college-attending individuals within that same age range. Other findings on college binge drinking are even more alarming.
- 50 percent of college students have experienced a black-out.
- 10 percent of those who drink alcohol in college may have 12 or more drinks in a day at least once a month.
- 1 percent of those who drink alcohol in college may have 24 or more drinks in a day at least one time in a month.
So, how many drinks is binge drinking? Binge drinking is defined as five or more alcoholic beverages consecutively for a male, and four or more for a female. The last two figures above are obviously extreme examples, but when some colleges boast tens of thousands of students, even the 24-or-more episodes can happen hundreds of times in a month on a large campus.
How To Stop Binge Drinking On College Campuses
Initiatives to reach individual students who are at risk for alcohol abuse have generally been less effective than broader, campus-wide programs. Universities that try to identify problem drinkers before they start, however, are generally better equipped to cut down on the rate of binge drinking.
The groups of college students most at risk for excessive drinking are:
- Greek fraternity and sorority members
Some colleges have made efforts to encourage alcohol abstinence or moderation by instituting orientation sessions for new students, alcohol abuse awareness weeks, and alcohol-related lessons in the classroom. These efforts haven’t proved to make a significant difference by themselves, but they can be effective when combined with a broader alcohol-prevention strategy.
Since most colleges have an online portal for their students, they could require all students (or freshman, at least) to complete an online module about the dangers of alcohol. This could be on a semester or annual basis, with the students being required to finish it within the first month or so of classes. Colleges could then prompt students to report their alcohol usage anonymously. Self-reporting is the No. 1 way data is collected on college drinking, after all. Students should be mandated to report their alcohol use anonymously every semester, if colleges want to set up such a system.
Additionally, colleges might wish to reach out to parents before a student takes his or her first class. They can do this en masse with an online portal or email system. Parents can help colleges get an idea of the incoming students’ history of alcohol use. The institutions can thus better identify at-risk individuals ahead of time, and the administrative staff can then form a plan to check up on such students throughout their time in higher education.
Counseling Services For Drinkers In College
Student health centers are a powerful resource for students who need to seek help and direction related to their alcohol usage while attending school. Counseling for alcohol use can be highly effective when a school’s health center provides a non-judgmental, constructive environment for students to utilize as often as possible.
In 2002, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) College Drinking Task Force issued a score of recommendations to reduce binge drinking on college campuses across the country. A follow-up study on 351 colleges, published in a peer-reviewed journal in 2010, found the following figures:
- 98 percent of colleges surveyed offered alcohol education programs.
- Only 50 percent of surveyed colleges had intervention programs available.
- Special services for “problem drinkers” were available at 67 percent of colleges.
- 22 percent of schools referred problem drinkers to off-campus resources.
- 11 percent offered no form of an intervention program.
- A little more than one-fifth of schools surveyed were unaware of the NIAAA’s recommendations.
A separate, more recent study found the average counselor-to-student ratio in U.S. colleges was 1:2,081. This figure may not be too alarming since a majority of students don’t frequent the student health center, but every college should still have a plan in place in case the demand for alcohol-related counseling services skyrockets during a particular semester.
Finally, colleges shouldn’t forget to promote their health centers widely and make sure students know they can receive alcohol treatment services there. Orientation sessions, alcohol abuse awareness weeks and online learning modules are great ways for colleges to draw students’ attention to the health center.
Social Marketing Strategies To Reduce College Drinking
Another way of looking at curbing college drinking is to address the college drinking culture. Unfortunately, for many students, college and alcohol go hand-in-hand. Rather than trying to identify and draw out the binge drinkers, this strategy focuses on changing the culture of the campus. When problem behaviors arise, this strategy dictates that colleges should intervene at a community level, rather than trying to address subgroups with extreme behavior patterns.
Social marketing strategies at a campus-wide level involve collateral like flyers, posters, bumper stickers and signs on digital screens. Colleges can promote a healthier overall drinking environment using these assets. An example sign might say, “Did you know 48 percent of adults didn’t drink a single alcoholic beverage last month?” Alcohol abuse awareness weeks and orientation sessions also fall into this line of outreach.
Campaigns like this emphasize that heavy drinking is not the norm on campus, and not as big of a staple in adulthood as students might picture it to be. Results are mixed when it comes to the effectiveness of motivational campaigns like this, although they do fare better when combined with evidence-based regulatory and punitive measures.
Regulating The Environment On Campus And Beyond
Working with local lawmakers, city police and the owners of nearby establishments is going to be the key to cutting down on alcohol consumption in college, including binge alcohol consumption. Problems that arise on campus often come from those who don’t drink excessively. Since binge drinkers are in the minority of overall drinkers on a campus, problems like vandalism, sexual assaults, fights, riots and driving under the influence actually arise more frequently among students who didn’t have more than four or five drinks at the time.
Therefore, cutting back on the availability of alcohol near a campus and discouraging those who want to break the rules are crucial strategies in mitigating students’ alcohol consumption. Since colleges are in control of their own campuses and student populations, they can take the following steps to mitigate alcohol consumption:
- Enforce stronger punishment of students found with alcohol in residence halls, such as instituting a two-strike or zero-tolerance system.
- Encourage campus or local police to set up DUI checkpoints on weekends for students driving back to the campus or dormitories.
- Institute stronger surveillance of underage drinking outside athletic venues, including checkpoints on the way out.
- Implement stiffer penalties for students 21 or older who provide alcohol to minors or host a party where minors are drinking.
- Institute stronger monitoring of noise disturbances on campus, penalizing those who are found drinking underage and/or consuming alcohol where it’s not permitted.
- Train resident advisors to better identify and report drinking in residence halls.
- Inform parents swiftly of their child’s illegal behaviors.
The following steps require the help of the larger community. Not all are feasible, but each one helps with reducing the availability of alcohol near campus, and thus makes it harder for students to drink as much they might desire. Here are some alcohol prevention-strategies that may require the help of local police, lawmakers and the owners of bars, restaurants, liquor and grocery stores:
- Regulate the number of establishments that can sell alcohol near campus.
- Set a certain physical limit for how close an establishment with alcohol can operate near the school.
- Limit or eliminate the number of alcohol-related specials a nearby bar, restaurant or liquor store can offer.
- Mitigate the number of alcohol advertisements near campus.
- Work with lawmakers to regulate what liquor stores near campus can carry. Try to keep them from selling kegs, large cases of beer and even hard liquor.
- Encourage local police to ramp up their monitoring of establishments that might sell alcohol to minors.
- Work with landlords of off-campus student housing complexes to cut down on parties.
- Lobby the local or state legislature to increase taxes on alcoholic beverages.
- Lobby for stronger penalties on students who are caught using a fake ID.
Colleges can also work with taxi or ride-sharing services to provide students a free or deeply discounted ride back to campus on weekends. Granted, this might not cut down on the amount of alcohol a student consumes away from campus, but at least it encourages responsibility and fewer intoxicated drivers on the road.
The 2010 study of colleges’ implementation of the NIAAA’s recommendations found that only 33 percent of institutions coordinated efforts with the local community to monitor alcohol sales to minors, and only 7 percent restricted the number of nearby establishments that carry alcohol. Needless to say, more work could be done in the above areas.
Additional Alcohol Prevention Strategies
The Safer California Universities study gives us a few other ideas when it comes to curbing college drinking, and the results show that the measures are effective. The multi-year project concluded in 2013 and focused on 14 large public universities in California.
The following measures were implemented at half of the universities involved in the study:
- A ramped-up police response to disruptive parties
- Holding the party hosts or organizers responsible for disruptive parties that involved college drinkers, even if the host wasn’t a student
- DUI checkpoints near campus
- Minor decoy operations that make sure local establishments are checking IDs and not selling to underage students
Universities that saw the above interventions take place near campus were found to have a student population that was significantly less likely to consume alcohol off campus, when compared to the colleges that didn’t make the same changes. Also, significantly fewer “Safer University” students reported being intoxicated the last time they drank at an off-campus site, while students at the control campuses in the study couldn’t say the same.
Strategies For Greek Parties
We all know that Greek houses are notorious for loud, expansive parties, many of which involve underage students. At least, that’s the stereotype.
Either way, Mothers Against Drunk Driving has several recommendations for how colleges can make sure parties at fraternities and sororities don’t get out of hand:
- Train fraternity and sorority leaders about responsible hosting practices.
- Require ID checks at parties to prevent minors from attending.
- Encourage police to monitor noise levels of parties.
- Offer incentives to Greek Houses that don’t violate the noise code and provide alcohol to minors.
- Offer intervention and peer-to-peer counseling services to Greek members.
Tracking Students’ Alcohol Use
Several measures from both a motivational and regulatory standpoint will need to be implemented in order for a college to cut down on the amount of alcohol its students consume. Of course, a college can’t really know what problems it has until it tracks the behavior of its students. Online anonymous surveys can help with that.
Once colleges have an idea of how much their students drink and how many binge drinkers may be involved, they can start to develop a plan to reduce the amount of alcohol being consumed overall. This will take a dedication of campus resources as well as close collaboration with the larger community.
Some of the measures might be punitive in essence, but once the groundwork is in place and the culture is altered, incoming students won’t even notice the difference when they have a hard time getting alcohol and don’t see students drinking around them often.