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.
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.
College students like to drink. Sometimes they drink too much. And sometimes they pay the price – academically, socially, and sometimes, with their lives. No matter how well-intentioned they are, educational prevention methods like posters and lectures alone will not stop all this from happening.
Students know this. Administrators know this. Yet, according to new research, the vast majority of colleges, when it comes to prevention, are leaving an extraordinary resource untapped – the students themselves.
A recent survey of college and university officials found that 66 percent of institutions now collect criminal justice information about would-be students, usually through self-disclosure on the application. The survey revealed that a wide range of offenses can get an applicant additional screening that can lead to rejection, and that less than half of the colleges that use this approach have written policies to guide admissions officers or train those employees.
As the head of the Center for Community Alternatives, the organization that asked the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers to conduct the survey, I am troubled by the survey’s findings. CCA’s core mission is removing the barriers to employment, education and full community reintegration faced by individuals who have been involved in the criminal justice system, and we know, from both the research literature and from our own experience, that access to a higher education can have a profound effect on individual lives. If past criminal convictions are preventing significant numbers of young people from going to college, then we all lose out.
That’s why these colleges’ policies concern us. Seventy-five percent of schools consider any drug or alcohol conviction negatively in spite of how common those offenses are among the college-age population. And one-third of schools consider pending misdemeanors or even misdemeanor arrests in a negative light.
Also disturbing is the ad hoc quality of the procedures used by many of the schools that collect this sensitive information. At the 40 percent of colleges that train staff on how to interpret criminal records, the training is most often provided by campus security or “other staff.” The lack of in depth-training is troubling because criminal records are often inaccurate and almost always more complicated than they may seem at first blush.
A major complication in interpreting criminal records is that state laws vary so greatly that two college applicants from different states, convicted of the same offense at age 15, could end up with entirely different criminal history records. One may end up with an adult record while the other will have no adult record whatsoever. In some states anyone older than 16 can be prosecuted as an adult and end up with a permanent record. In other states the cut-off age is 18, and those who are younger will be processed in the juvenile system, which protects them from a permanent conviction. Without training, admissions officers will not be aware of the vagaries of state criminal records and will be more likely to make arbitrary decisions based on inaccurate facts.
There are important public policy reasons to eschew the collection of criminal history information from college applicants. The fact that African Americans and Latinos are overrepresented in the criminal justice population is no longer open to question. Racial profiling and the heavy concentration of police in low-income, urban neighborhoods have led to high rates of arrest, prosecution and conviction among communities of color. An African American in the city of Los Angeles is seven times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, a misdemeanor, as a white person is. A Latino in the same city is twice as likely to be arrested for that offense as a white person. Yet government studies show that whites use marijuana more than either blacks or Latinos. Based on these facts, screening for criminal records cannot be a race-neutral practice.
Are there serious risks involved in not conducting criminal background checks? There is no empirical evidence that students with criminal records present a threat to campus safety. Only one study has investigated the link between criminal history screening and improved safety on campus; no statistical difference in campus crime was found between schools that screen and schools that don’t.
The U.S. Department of Education has concluded that “students on the campuses of post-secondary institutions are significantly safer than the nation as a whole.” The most horrific campus crimes, like the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University shootings, are committed by students who don’t have criminal records. Rape and sexual assault are the only crimes showing no statistical differences between college students and non-students, and those offenses are most often committed by inebriated students who have no prior criminal records. Thirty-eight percent of the respondents in our survey reported that they did not use criminal justice information in their admissions processes, and none of them indicated that they believed their campuses were less safe as a result.
Colleges and universities can responsibly refrain from collecting criminal background information about applicants, and by doing so will be able to attract a diverse student body and maintain a safe and secure campus. But if criminal history screening is done, it should be done according to reasonable, fair and written policies and procedures:
Remove the disclosure requirement from initial application for admission and ask for criminal justice information only after conditional admission.
Limit the disclosure requirement to convictions for felonies (not misdemeanors or infractions) that were committed within the past five years and that were committed after the applicant’s 19th birthday.
Establish admissions criteria that are fair and evidence-based, e.g., remove barriers to admission of individuals who are under some form of community supervision and provide an opportunity to document personal growth and rehabilitation.
Base admissions decisions on assessments that are well-informed and unbiased by developing in-house expertiseand performing an assessment and multi-factor analysis to determine whether a past criminal offense justifies rejection.
Establish written procedures that are transparent and consistent with due process. Applicants should be informed in writing of the reason for the withdrawal of an offer of admission and should be afforded the right of appeal.
Offer support and advocacy including on-campus support services for students who have criminal records.
Evaluate the policy periodically to determine whether it is justified.
There are great social benefits associated with a more educated citizenry — more informed voters, better parents, and a more skilled workforce, to name a few. A college education is a crime prevention tool: colleges and universities promote public safety in the larger community when they open their doors to people with criminal records who demonstrate the commitment and qualifications to pursue higher education.
Marsha Weissman is executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives. The organization’s full report, "The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions Reconsidered," can be downloaded from its website.
A recent article in Inside Higher Ed reported the efforts that colleges and universities are making to put a stop to the ritualized mayhem on assorted campuses, typically as a rite of spring, that is as deeply embedded in campus lore as any sanctioned event. These range from a singular event, like Tufts University's Naked Quad Run, to a multi-day event like the University of Connecticut's infamous Spring Weekend, a four-day informal but well-known series of un-sponsored parties in various locations on and near campus that took place last weekend.
Each of these events leads to predictable results: multiple cases of severe alcohol poisoning and hospital transports, physical and sexual assaults, vandalism, increased personnel and equipment costs, embarrassing media coverage and cries of outrage from the general public about why colleges "allow" these things to happen. As far back as 1998, the higher education press was reporting on the intractable nature of UConn's Spring Weekend, chiding administrators for not doing enough to prevent the mayhem.
I spent four years as dean of students at the University of Connecticut, and thus had a front-row seat at both the multiple strategy meetings held by various administrators in advance of Spring Weekend and at the events of Spring Weekend themselves, and I can tell you with absolute certainty: "allowed" is not a descriptor that applies to these events.
Two years removed from that position, and now at a small college with its own Spring Weekend (and its own challenges), I've had the opportunity to ponder the lessons I learned during those four years. While I was not part of the conversations that led to the most recent request by UConn administrators for a moratorium (soundly rejected by the student government), I empathized with my former colleagues in their efforts to respond to demands that the event be "canceled." I can hear the familiar plaint now: "How can we 'cancel' something we don't put on in the first place?"
Spring Weekend at my current institution, despite having the same name, is on such a different scale as to not even warrant comparison to the behemoth that is UConn's event, but, as I often observe, students on most campuses are similar in some fundamental ways, and I've tried to apply what I learned at UConn to my understanding of this weekend. Some of those lessons are ones that some of my colleagues on other campuses learned long ago, and perhaps offer some insights into why the management, or, even more extreme, the cancellation of these events, is so problematic.
Observation 1: A lot of students like to drink.
Not all students like to drink, and not many students like to drink to such excess that they poison themselves, but a pretty darn high percentage like to drink to the point where they feel a little buzzed, a little uninhibited, a little more edgy than they feel during the day. Any current research on student alcohol use will tell you that drinking is a very popular co-curricular activity, and any student activities professional will tell you that the presence of alcohol is the flame to our student moths. If an “event” promises the availability of free or cheap alcohol, students will show up. You cannot fight this attraction with non-alcohol events, no matter how much fun they might appear to be.
Observation 2: Students like spectacles, especially dangerous ones.
Like most of us, students like big crazy events, even if it's more to observe them from a safe distance. I knew many students who attended Spring Weekend events at UConn not to participate in the mayhem and destruction themselves, but to witness it and to be able to say, "I saw this kid from my calculus class, butt-naked, standing in the bed of a pickup truck, pounding on his chest." Or something similar. And if they can capture that image in some way and post it on YouTube or Facebook, all the better.
The important distinction is that they don't want to be the butt-naked guy in the truck (well, most of them don't, but there are always a few who will accommodate the masses and the media). They just want to see him. They want to see the fights, but don't want to fight. They want to see the arrests, but don't want to get arrested. In this way, they are not unlike the general population. For me, one of my most unsettling experiences at UConn was when I found myself following another administrator through the crowd to stand on the edge of the medical triage area and observe the falling-down drunk and bleeding students being carted toward the medical trailer. I realized that the group I was with had the same rubber-necking motives as many of the students in attendance.
Observation 3: Students like to be part of something bigger than themselves.
Anyone who's ever attended a football game at one of the true "big houses" of NCAA football understands this. When you are one of a hundred thousand screaming fans at a Michigan or Alabama home game, you feel connected in a unique way to the rest of humanity (at least that part of humanity that roots for the Wolverines or the Tide). You are one of thousands dressed in the right colors, singing the right songs, cheering at the right moments, and it's simply transcendent.
It is this most basic human desire, to be connected to a cause and powerful with promise, that has led nations into battle. College students recognize that these are the moments they will carry into middle and old age, moments replete with color and noise and a level of outrageousness that no night in a campus coffee house or bouncing around, relatively sober, on an inflatable obstacle course will match.
Observation 4: Threats don't work.
In the recent Inside Higher Ed piece, an administrator was quoted as saying that students need to "understand how important the reputation of their school is to the integrity of their degree" and that these huge embarrassing events damage the value of their diploma. Nice try, but I don't think many students make decisions about attending or supporting these events based on this reasoning. I'm not even sure I believe it anymore.
Harvard and Yale have some over-the-top events that involve excessive drinking. Dartmouth has its famous Winter Carnival. I have not seen evidence that the bad behavior of some students has soured employers on these institutions. It's different, obviously, if a job candidate has an arrest record because of a campus incident, or if that student drank so excessively throughout college that he or she ended up with a mediocre GPA. But most employers are savvy enough to know that schools that have big spring weekend parties or nude footraces also produce capable employees and will not dismiss an entire institution out of hand because of the deeply rooted, though troubling, traditions of its student body. Besides, most employers were college students themselves, and some probably stood on the sidelines cheering on the butt-naked guy in the pick-up truck, and know it didn't destroy their integrity or work ethic.
Observation 5: Parents help. A little.
One of the things I love about my students, though it puts them at risk more times than I like to think about, is their ongoing love affair with immortality. Students rarely think about consequences. Recent research on brain development explains this as the not-quite-finished adolescent brain being unskilled at thinking through all the possible outcomes of specific actions. Students do not, like those of us of a certain age, make connections between things like, say, attendance at an event where there are a lot of law enforcement personnel and getting arrested. Or, maybe, attendance at an event where there are a lot of drunk people with beer bottles in their hands and ending up with 25 stitches in one's scalp. Frankly, they don't often see the connection between parking in a fire lane and getting a ticket.
So the students who attend this year's UConn Spring Weekend events are unlikely to think about the classmate who was killed last year by a random punch thrown by a drunk partygoer and connect that kind of risk to their own actions.
Their parents, however, think about all of these things, all the time. They read the press coverage of students' arrests, injuries and deaths on campuses all year long, and at the conclusion of each article, feel a wave of sympathy for the parents of that student and a flood of relief that it was not their child. So when Spring Weekend or a similar event rolls around on their child's campus, parents can, and do, say things like, "Come home." Or, "Here's a hundred dollars. Visit your high school friends on another campus." Or "I'm coming to visit that weekend. What do you have planned?" For many students, the executive function their brains lack can be substituted for by their parents, and that can literally be the difference between life and death.
Observation 6: It eventually gets old.
One thing we knew at UConn was that first-year students participated most heavily in Spring Weekend events, and that each successive year saw fewer students involved. For most students (not all, unfortunately), vomiting in front of friends, flashing their breasts to a crowd of drunk men armed with cameras, risking their scalp, and taking a ride in a paddy wagon to the local police station are not activities that warrant repeating.
And this is what comforts me, if anything does, when I think about these events: most students eventually figure out the difference between a buzz and alcohol poisoning, and learn to moderate their intake. What's frustrating for all of us — administrators, parents, law enforcement — is that there is very little we can do to speed up this process, or keep them out of harm's way in the meantime. Which brings me to my final observation.
Observation 7: They are better at taking care of each other than of themselves.
The best strategies, I believe, are those that focus on helping students identify the signs of alcohol poisoning in others and knowing what to do when they see those signs. Students believe themselves to be immortal. They don't ascribe such a trait to their friends. And you only need a couple of reasonably sober people in a group of drunk friends to realize someone is in trouble and then to get help.
That's where the second important strategy is important: help needs to be nearby. It is easy to criticize the staff members at campuses who are less aggressive about confronting students holding "open containers" during these events than they would be at other times. But personally, I would rather have my students within view, and have public safety officers within reach of those students if needed. We may be accused of “looking the other way,” but I think it’s actually the exact opposite: we are looking right at them, and I believe that kind of presence can change their actions in a positive way.
And the truth for me is, I can live with the accusations of hypocrisy and inconsistency more easily than I can live with the death or serious injury of a student. For that reason, I have supported the recent efforts of our alcohol task force to implement a policy they call "SAMM" (Safety Always Matters Most). On some campuses, this is known as a "medical amnesty" or a "good Samaritan" policy, but I asked the group to be as straightforward in its nomenclature as possible. These policies, under whatever name a campus chooses, are similar: get help for someone in need of medical assistance, and we'll mostly forgive whatever transgressions you might have also committed. I say "mostly" because we will, at the very least, have a conversation with you about the situation. But our message is clear: safety matters more than rules, policies, consequences.
If I can keep my students safe, I figure, through whatever version of Spring Weekend they choose to participate in, there will be time enough for them to figure out the ways adults are expected to behave in the world. This is a bargain I make that few outside my profession seem to understand. To those critics, I suggest that you trust we care more about our students than about liability, and that we understand them, from years spent up close observing them, in ways most people don't.
If there was a way to "cancel" Spring Weekend, Spring Fling, Fountain Day, Fool's Fest, or whatever a campus calls its out-of-control student-led party, we would have done it. Without that option, we will employ the strategies we think give us all the best chance of surviving a rite of spring as deeply embedded as commencement, another busy weekend on our campus, but one we want all of our students to be around to enjoy.
Lee Burdette Williams
Lee Burdette Williams is vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.