The recent drinking-related death of a freshman at California State University at Fresno should alert college administrators, students, and parents to the seriousness of student alcohol abuse as it occurs in and around campus settings. This unnecessary tragedy should also motivate students to use every precaution available when engaging with alcohol, a popular – and dangerous – hobby.
When I read of these incidents, and there are far too many, I wonder why student alcohol misuse continues to be a problem. It seems that every tragedy sparks a renewed campus interest in curbing alcohol abuse, whether in the form of community vigils to raise awareness, student activism aimed at changing the college culture, or policy reforms that promise safer campus environments. However, just as soon as we take a step forward to make a campus environment safer, popular culture pushes us two steps backward.
College students are targeted with messages that promote drinking as a part of the college experience. Students see images from mega-beer advertising in everything from sports to popular reality TV shows. In this year of the presidential election, drinking beer has even played a role in making President Obama appear more likable to voters. In this environment, I find myself resigned to the belief that notwithstanding the risks, students are going to consume alcohol, sometimes in unhealthy ways, while in college. It is a part of the college experience, just as much as the freshman 15 and the sophomore slump are rites of passage.
Campus administrators have responded to student alcohol misuse with education, policy and advocacy outreach. Campuses have grown their arsenal of websites, policies, pamphlets, posters, videos, training sessions, peer educators, themed housing, community coalitions, online assessments, and other tools to combat the issue and help students make safer choices with alcohol. The research suggests that the use of these various tools does curb alcohol misuse and risky drinking behavior. In my research, I have found that students frequently engage with alcohol in risky ways while attending off-campus parties. The bottom line is simply this: students are better off with the intervention than without it.
But are these interventions sufficient? And conversely, if we add one more program to our strategy, will it make a difference? My research leads me to believe that a focus on off-campus party hosts could make a difference. It is clear that those who organize or host parties are underprepared and ill-educated to do so. I advocate for targeted education of party hosts so that they can work to create and manage parties in safe and responsible ways. I focus on students who host parties, because I believe they are the best individuals to make decisions that can save the lives of others. In the same way that they bring groups of students together for parties, both on- and off-campus, they also stay at campus parties long after administrators have gone home or to sleep.
Focusing on hosts leads to some important policy and programmatic strategies. Policies that encourage hosts to take protective actions when promoting alcohol use are likely to be more effective than banning alcohol from parties. However, most party hosts are not ready for this responsibility. Students are underprepared to create and manage parties in which others can socialize with alcohol in safe environments. For example, when I asked hosts about their preparations for and actions during a party, they said they are unlikely to provide any snacks, heavier food, water, or non-alcoholic beverages. By not making these common protective items available, they are missing an opportunity to reduce the likelihood of intoxication among party guests.
In addition, hosts are unlikely to use basic party management techniques, such as adherence to state alcohol laws; preventing minors from drinking at their party; having a sober team or keeping sober themselves; calling police if the party gets out of control; verifying that the smoke detectors and fire extinguisher work before a party; and contacting neighbors in advance of a party. Party hosts seem unaware that each of these proactive measures could greatly reduce personal liability and risk to students.
Drinking games are the only likely party element that hosts are willing to provide at parties. Common drinking games, such as beer pong, flip cup, quarters, and card games, increase the likelihood of risky or binge drinking among guests as they promote fast, frequent, and distracted drinking.
Party hosts are a weak link in the chain of strategies to manage the campus environment. There is a need to be more aggressive as we extend alcohol education programs to those who host or plan to host off-campus parties. It is a safe assumption that on-campus and off-campus party hosts behave similarly. In our collective effort to curb student alcohol-related incidents, campus administrators should continue their work along the environmental management approach by intentionally targeting student party hosts. Because this is a challenging group to reach, hosts would benefit from a curriculum that promotes safe party management, practical online resources for event planning, messages from campus and community leaders that reinforce healthy drinking behaviors, and policies that give students the incentive to do the right thing, like good Samaritan and medical amnesty policies.
But is curbing student alcohol misuse the ultimate goal? No, we need to push beyond curbing alcohol misuse to stop senseless and preventable alcohol-related deaths. For this to happen there needs to be a cultural shift in the way in which the campus community values alcohol and alcohol-related activities, especially as they occur on or near college campuses. Common practices that send unintended messages to students include limited late night or weekend student activity programming; few Friday or weekend classes or exams; sporting events that sell alcohol and promote a tradition of pre- and post-game tailgate parties; open bar events for university donors, faculty, and alumni; vague student alcohol policies that are often not applied equally to all student groups; and area restaurants and bars that give significant discounts for happy hour, pitcher, and bottomless cup promotions. Until we seriously address the issue of campus drinking, including a campus dialogue between and among campus members, campus administrators will remain handcuffed to strategies that are additive in nature but that do not adequately address the problem.
Designing and implementing a comprehensive party host curriculum and training is additive – but significant. I urge scholar practitioners to rethink, research, and discuss new and integrative approaches to alcohol education. Students who are new to college campuses, such as the case at Fresno State, deserve a better environment in which to learn and develop. They deserve an environment and a campus administration that strives for more than curbing student alcohol misuse. The goal of an environmental management approach is to influence behavioral changes within campus and community environments; the challenge is to do so with campus-specific interventions, limited resources, and narrowly tailored campus committees responsible for risk management.
Rick C. Jakeman is assistant professor of higher education within the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University.