Alcohol Summer School

More colleges require freshmen, as part of orientation, to take an online course on drinking-related dangers.
August 11, 2005

What part of the brain is involved in the storage of memories and is especially vulnerable to alcohol abuse? If you didn’t answer “hippocampus,” you might learn something from AlcoholEdu, an online alcohol education program that is being used by an increasing number of college campuses.

The University of California at Berkeley this week announced that it was requiring freshmen to take the course, which is now part of orientation for students at about 130 campuses. AlcoholEdu quizzes students on their drinking habits, and then uses videos and graphics to impart facts and statistics about alcohol and its physiological effects, before testing the students. The entire course is about three hours -- students can log in and out, completing it at their own pace. If the student fails the test at the end of the course, he or she must take it until achieving a passing score. A month later, students do a final follow up session.

Colleges are charged based on the number of students participating. Berkeley will pay $36,000.

At a time when many colleges want to control alcohol abuse without using iron-clad dictates and threats, some institutions, and even some fraternities, think AlcoholEdu is a step in the right direction -- even if it's only a step.

Villanova University in 2001 became one of the first places to require AlcoholEdu for new students. Officials said an internal study did not show a decline in the number of alcohol-related accidents, but it did show a decline in the severity of the accidents. Sarah DeFilippis, a rising senior at Villanova, recalls taking the course as a freshman. She does not remember much of the content, but recalls learning from AlcoholEdu that Tylenol and alcohol don’t mix. “That wouldn’t have crossed my mind,” she said. “I was hesitant about the course, but it doesn’t really judge or criticize drinking, it just kind of presents facts.”

A study conducted by a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which was funded by AlcoholEdu creator Outside The Classroom, Inc., found that alcohol related problems, from public vomiting to missed classes, were down over an academic year in thousands of students who took the course, as opposed to those who did not. The research is being reviewed for publication. While many students in the study were required to take AlcoholEdu, some took the course voluntarily, introducing the possibility of some response bias. Still, Andrew F. Wall, the researcher, said there was a decline even when he looked only at random students required to take the course.

Henry Wechsler, a Harvard School of Public Health researcher who studies drinking on campus, said such a course is certainly within the mission of an educational institution, but that student drinking is a complex problem, and that most educational efforts do little to impact binge drinking. “When an institution requires it, that probably sends a message to students that they are serious about addressing the issue,” he said. “But there has to be a comprehensive approach,” he added, noting that colleges need to do things like working with alcohol servers at sporting events and local bars on recognizing when to cut patrons off. He also said colleges need to work with their fraternities.

Some fraternities are adopting AlcoholEdu on their own. Mark A. Williams, the national executive director of Psi Upsilon, and father of two college students, said all fraternity brothers nationwide will be encouraged to take the course. He plans to offer incentives, such as awards and discounted liability insurance to chapters where most of the members pass the course. Williams has been the director for 16 years, and said he likes AlcoholEdu’s approach better than the “thou shalt not rules” of years past. “When I practiced law, I believed in appeals to reason, not the horror story appeals to emotion,” he said. “This is an appeal to reason. An attempt to get the best information to a large number of people who interact socially.”

The closest AlcoholEdu gets to horror stories is in the video clips where students watch six college characters behave in different social settings, with the climax in a living room where Mike is celebrating his birthday with a few beers, while some of his friends are trying to study. The next morning, Jessica, a sorority member who exercises a lot and often mysteriously disappears to the bathroom, asks: “Hey Nisha, where are you coming from?” Nisha either does not want to talk about the guy she went home with last night, or has too big a headache to speak.

Nick Hollingsworth is the president of the Inter-Fraternity Council and a member of Sigma Pi at California State University’s Chico campus, a college that had a drinking related death this winter, and now requires AlcoholEdu for new students. He said some students just get through the course as quickly as possible and then forget about it, but others seem to have learned something from it. “Our campus has had a pretty bad alcohol problem,” Hollingsworth said, “and I definitely think it can’t hurt."

One of the student favorites in the course seems to be the blood alcohol concentration calculator. Students can plug in their age, sex, weight, and a number of drinks in a given time period, and see how much alcohol will be in their blood stream at various points through the night, and how that compares to legal limits. The intrepid explorer might learn that, if he is a 21-year-old man weighing in at 88 pounds, those two drinks in an hour mean he is driving drunk. However, if he gains a pound, he’ll be back on the good side of the law.


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