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Academic Approach to Alcohol

August 23, 2013

Beginning this year, University of Idaho freshmen will face immediate expulsion if their grade-point average is below 1.0 at the end of fall semester -- and whether or not alcohol is to blame, it's part of an effort to curb underage drinking.

The idea may be unprecedented, student affairs officials and substance abuse experts say. But as part of a broader overhaul of alcohol policies, it will likely help those students be more successful academically and also improve the overall campus climate, Idaho Dean of Students Bruce Pitman said. (Expelled students who suffered extreme circumstances such as an illness or death in the family may be readmitted via an appeals process.)

“This is both, we hope, compassionate intervention for students who, quite frankly, probably don’t have a plan and would simply languish another semester accumulating bad grades and debt,” he said. “but it’s also about an effort to improve the dynamics of our students as well, because many of these students who quit coming to class become disruptive in their living environments.”

As part of a study of freshmen retention patterns, five years ago Idaho officials started a one-day academic success program for low-performing students to attend before spring term. It became clear that while students with a GPA above 1.0 went on to do O.K. in the following semester, that was not the case for those with lower grades. Often they would go on to flounder through the spring, hurting their ability to transfer or return to Idaho if they took time off, before dropping out altogether.

Students who underperform academically often report some sort of physical or emotional challenge, said Jessica Greher-Traue, assistant director for wellness at Bentley University and a past chair of the American College Personnel Association’s Alcohol and Other Drug Commission. In the Fall 2012 National College Health Assessment, students most often reported stress, anxiety and depression as impacting their academic performance.

“Alcohol is most often used as a way of coping with these issues,” she said in an e-mail.

That may have been the case for students at Idaho.

“While they were physically here on campus, they were not engaging in the academic process, and conversely, they were often involved with conduct issues,” often stemming from alcohol and substance abuse, Pitman said. “So we connected the dots with our other concerns about campus safety and thought that we ought to try to have a different strategy related to our academic regulations.”

In the past three or four years, the university has seen “a rising tide of issues and incidents,” including hospitalizations, traffic accidents and a few students falling from roofs. In that time, about 115 students have fallen into the 0.0-1.0 GPA range each year.

“Given the corollary connection between academic performance and high-risk drinking behaviors,” Greher-Traue said, “one might hypothesize that asking students who are struggling academically to take time off may also eliminate some of the highest-risk drinkers within a given population.”

Previously, Idaho freshmen who earned a GPA below 2.0 during fall semester would be put on probation, and kicked out if they didn’t climb above that mark by the end of spring. This rule, approved by the Faculty Senate, will remain intact for students whose GPAs aren’t low enough to warrant automatic “disqualification” from enrollment.

While minimum GPAs vary by institution, many colleges have procedures involving faculty, academic and student affairs staff who monitor and counsel students on whether staying enrolled is feasible or desirable, Greher-Traue said.

“It appears Idaho’s proposal will increase communitywide awareness of these issues and create more of a safety net to catch such students who are struggling in order to encourage them to take time away from school to become well enough to succeed,” she said.

However, it’s important that that community – bar and restaurant owners, police, parents – be involved and not just aware, said Tom Hall, director of wellness and health promotion services at the University of Central Florida.

“It is equally important to understand that underage and excessive  drinking occurs in the context of celebrated campus traditions  and inconsistent community enforcement of minimum legal drinking age laws,” Hall, who has researched alcohol use among college students and worked with local police to decrease underage drinking, said via e-mail.

Prevention experts say always say that no one measure is will stop alcohol abuse: only a holistic, multifaceted plan will. Idaho officials know this, which is why they’re also creating a new position for an alcohol and other drug programming coordinator, stepping up evidence-based programming like bystander intervention, and updating their student code of conduct.

“We’re going to resist the urge to just bring a talking head or two into campus to inspire and try to change behavior,” Pitman said.

Students affected by the new rule will have no opportunity to contest their expulsion before it happens – only to appeal it after the fact. But Elissa R. Weitzman, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School who directed Harvard’s environmental prevention program A Matter of Degree, advocated for an “ask, assess, advise, assist/arrange” framework when helping struggling students.

"Taking the step of expelling a student seems to me to be the end result of a comprehensive assessment of what is happening with that student. There could be family issues, housing issues, learning issues, substance use or mental health issues,” Weitzman said in an e-mail. “It is not clear that expelling a student is an appropriate or inappropriate response, but imposition of standards for behavior, conduct and achievement seem consistent with the core mission of an institution of higher education.”

Idaho’s new rule may be unique, but the sentiment behind it is not, Greher-Traue said: many colleges these days are “thinking outside the box” when it comes to prevention. For example, Bentley’s nontraditional OneLess program actually targets students who already drink moderately, because even though they feel immune, they actually experience the highest rates of negative consequences. In the program’s second year, those students and others report drinking less frequently and in smaller quantities, in addition to taking self-protective strategies like staying hydrated.

Idaho administrators will talk to first-year students about the new rule at their upcoming orientation.

“Perhaps it will help students in terms of setting some higher expectations, but we also think it’ll help students avoid some hazards second semester – students who would frankly just be languishing, deciding what is next for them to do,” Pitman said. “We’ll see.”

 

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