At many colleges, concern about alcohol abuse has led to complete bans on consumption on campus.
Colby College has announced a different approach: It has added beer and wine to the menu of the campus dining hall on selected Friday nights. Only students of legal drinking age can consume. Alcohol-related programming -- such as a lecture by the owner of the Allagash brewery about his Belgian-style beers -- also has been added in the dining halls.
The idea for adding alcohol in an educational setting came from Catherine Welch, a senior who is the student body president. She had studied in Nepal, where a glass of beer or wine was a normal thing. At college, she said, Colby offered alcohol-free programs and chemical-free housing options, and some students still abused alcohol. She urged college officials to look for "a third option" -- something between prohibition and inebriation.
Colby's approach reflects a growing movement within the college health world to shift toward "social norms" programming to combat alcohol abuse. The idea behind "social norms" is to show students that most students consume moderate quantities of alcohol. Proponents of this theory argue that when colleges emphasize the negative impacts of any alcohol consumption, they lose credibility.
Michael P. Haines, director of the National Social Norm Resource Center, at Northern Illinois University, says that "what Colby is doing in dining halls is exposing students to the 'true norm' of moderate, social alcohol consumption. Such exposure is another way that a 'false norm' (binge-drinking-as-typical) is challenged."
Haines says that Colby is also "providing a safe, supervised and monitored environment for alcohol consumption on campus." He praises this approach.
"The lemming-like rush of college administrations banning on-campus alcohol consumption is misguided. It is ostensibly done to reduce student drinking," he says. "There is very little research to show it does. In reality, it changes the location without reducing drinking, resulting in more danger to students."
Other experts on student drinking, however, are skeptical.
Henry Wechsler, principal investigator of the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, says he wonders what kind of message Colby is sending to students under 21. "While the 21 year olds drink, this type of program must simply whet the appetite of the underage students, and remind them that college and alcohol come together," he says.