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'College Drinking: Reframing a Social Problem'

February 26, 2009

Every semester of every academic year, college campuses experience tragedies (and many more near-tragedies) involving excessive use of alcohol. A new book -- College Drinking: Reframing a Social Problem (Praeger) -- argues that colleges may need to rethink the approaches they have been taking to the problem. The author is George W. Dowdall, professor of sociology at Saint Joseph's University, in Philadelphia. Dowdall recently responded to questions about his book.

Q: You note that drinking among college students hasn't increased dramatically, but public discussion/concern has. Why is there so much attention now?

A: College drinking, once viewed as a harmless rite of passage, was reframed as the number one public health problem for students. Research projects such as the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study (with four surveys from 1993 to 2001 directed by Henry Wechsler) provided abundant evidence that heavy episodic or binge drinking raised the risk of alcohol-related problems for the individual drinker. The national data showed that although a majority of college students drank moderately if at all, 44 percent binged, and therefore ran higher risks. At about a third of colleges, more than half of their students engaged in binge drinking. The same studies demonstrated “second hand effects” on those in the immediate environment. Other data sources tended to show similar results.

A series of widely reported drinking deaths at prominent institutions like MIT raised even more attention. A 2002 Task Force on College Drinking by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) estimated that from 1,400 to 1,700 students died annually from drinking-related problems. Most recently, a group of college presidents has argued for lowering the drinking age, claiming (with no new evidence) that covert binge drinking has increased substantially. Over the past few decades, coverage of the issue of college drinking increased significantly in the national and higher education press as well as in campus newspapers.

Q: What is the link between drinking and crime on campus?

A: In our society, there is a powerful correlation between alcohol and crime, so it’s not at all surprising to find the same pattern between alcohol and campus crime. Excessive college drinking is associated with considerable activity by campus and community police, dealing with fights and with arrests and disciplinary actions associated with underage drinking. Rape demonstrates this alcohol-crime connection clearly. A large national study I coauthored reported that one out of every 20 college women experienced nonconsensual sex since the beginning of a school year, according to questions asked in spring semester surveys (roughly a period of seven months). More than 70 per cent of those women were too intoxicated to give consent, meeting the legal definition of rape.

There is another connection as well. I report in my book on the rape of a student at a small suburban liberal arts college. The man who raped her claimed he was drinking heavily at the time of the incident. He later used this story in successfully appealing an academic suspension, with the institution allowing him to attend classes and complete his degree but banning him from other campus activities. Alcohol ends up being an excuse for all sorts of problems.

Q: What are the lessons from the Duke lacrosse case for those concerned about drinking culture on campus?

A: The Duke lacrosse rape case was a “false positive.” No rape occurred, and a rogue prosecutor fabricated a case against innocent students. But the huge publicity about the allegations called attention to a culture of heavy alcohol use among some students on the Duke campus. Only a minority of students appear to be part of this culture, but many were tarred by the same brush in the media accounts. The Duke case also illustrates the potential “soft costs” associated with college drinking -- a major research university was painted in a very negative light by a case with international press coverage.

Q: The former president of Middlebury College has organized a group of college presidents to argue for change in the 21-year-old drinking age. What do you think of this movement?

A: I’m impressed with the ability of the Amethyst Initiative to bring attention to the issue of underage drinking. But the initiative set a low threshold, asking presidents to endorse a public debate about the policy and not an actual lowering of the drinking age, so at least some presidents probably signed on hoping just for more discussion. While it’s true that over 100 presidents endorsed the initiative that of course means the vast majority of college presidents haven’t.

I’m concerned that the movement places too much emphasis on the minimum drinking age, one factor among many shaping college drinking. Its proponents ignore research that shows that the current minimum drinking age has saved hundreds of lives each year, even with only modest efforts to enforce the law. I find it hard to believe that responsible college presidents can discount creditable research showing hundreds of lives saved. The initiative fails to explain how making many high school seniors into legal purchasers of alcohol wouldn’t simply push the problem down into younger high school populations. This doesn’t sound like “choosing responsibility” to me, but more like passing the buck.

So far, the movement has largely ignored successful efforts to moderate the negative effects of college drinking. Just claiming that the drinking age doesn’t work seems irresponsible in the face of extensive evidence to the contrary. It’s striking that a diverse set of organizations -- MADD, traffic safety experts, the AMA -- have sharply opposed the movement’s attempt to roll back the minimum drinking age.

Those college leaders who are failing to deal successfully with their own students’ alcohol abuse shouldn’t end up advocating changing a law that affects all those 18-21, including the majority not in college. Colleges should be leading the effort to scale down underage drinking, not undermining community and state efforts to enforce a law with widespread public support.

Q: What are the major mistakes colleges are making when it comes to curbing dangerous use of alcohol?

A: Colleges sometimes pigeonhole the dangerous use of alcohol as purely a student affairs issue or a problem for a small number of individual students. They simply don’t frame it as a major college-wide problem.

When alcohol-related problems happen, like a student death, colleges sometimes would rather “dodge a bullet” by trying to tamp down media coverage instead of viewing the incident as a teachable moment.

It’s difficult for many of us to look at alcohol realistically. After all, it’s not a controlled substance, is it? I asked my own students to rank-order in terms of potential harm some widely used illicit substances along with alcohol and tobacco. Most put the last two “legal” substances toward the end of the list, even though experts rank them significantly higher. We need to educate ourselves and our students about the risk of harm from what amounts to what writers have called our “domesticated drug” or “drug of the quad.”

Colleges should examine closely the evidence-based conclusions provided by the NIAAA in its 2002 College Drinking Task Force report and its recent update “What Colleges Need to Know Now.” Purely informational approaches used alone simply don’t work. Trying to deal with college drinking as only an individual’s choice doesn’t work either. Instead, colleges should try to shape the entire environment that shapes college drinking.

Q: What are some of the more promising strategies more colleges should consider?

A: The most important task of colleges is to place this issue much higher on their own agendas. Colleges ought to look critically and realistically at what they now do; assess, using fresh research, what effect they’re having; and engage in serious strategic planning about what to do next. Just pulling a promising program or today’s trendy intervention off the shelf and directing it at a small fraction of students probably won’t work too well.

Fortunately, promising approaches and resources are available, and I discuss many of them in my book. The NIAAA College Task Force concluded that several strategies have been demonstrated to work with the individual drinker and with general populations. The former include motivational interviewing for individual students. Among the latter, better enforcement of the minimum drinking age laws would help. One study completed after the NIAAA Task Force ended its work found that those states with more effective enforcement of those laws had lower rates of college binge drinking. Another promising strategy is to build effective campus-community coalitions. Colleges should be at the forefront of efforts to get the individual states to enforce existing law better.

Colleges should make use of the information and consultation services provided by the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention, funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The center holds a comprehensive annual meeting and offers considerable experience to campuses seeking assistance in dealing with problems.

Finally, presidential leadership (both at individual colleges and in national higher education) is necessary to focus attention on college drinking and raise it higher on college and higher education agendas. The associations that make up the Washington Higher Education Secretariat should take a fresh look at this issue and not just let a few such as NASPA and NCAA do all the heavy lifting. College drinking is a problem for all of higher education.

 

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