A New Roaring Twenties?

After a reprieve due to social restrictions and fewer students on campus, colleges may see more alcohol misuse and hazing this fall, Pietro A. Sasso and Stevan Veldkamp warn.

June 17, 2021
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Sorority and, in particular, fraternity hazing and related hazardous drinking continue to be areas of significant concern for college administrators across the country. Some recent data point to a return to pre-pandemic levels, but more concerning is a continuing upward trend. In fact, a potential, if not likely, scenario is that alcohol use and hazing may substantially increase this fall semester.

The tragic recent alcohol-related deaths of Stone Foltz, Adam Oakes and others provide validity to these concerns. After a brief reprieve due social restrictions and most students being away from campus during the COVID-19 pandemic, the normative trends of problematic hazing and related alcohol misuse appear to be resuming once again. As researchers at the Penn State Piazza Center for Fraternity & Sorority Research and Reform who study Greek organizations and work to facilitate cultural change, we can share some insights into these trends as well as some implications to consider for the forthcoming academic year, with a focus on readiness for the fall semester.

Plan for Fall

The pandemic disrupted the college experience for several student cohorts across two academic years, which may dramatically alter the way students engage in their extracurricular experiences this fall. The 2008 Harvard Alcohol Studies offer a preview of the type of party behaviors that we think may soon return. We expect that, although precollege alcohol consumption has recently diminished, it may increase in this coming academic year, especially given college students’ relative lack of social life since the pandemic began in 2020.

Data from the Piazza Center’s Fraternity and Sorority Experience Survey data from 2017 to 2019 indicated that drinking declined after the rash of hazing deaths in 2017. This trend began to rebound in 2019 before COVID-19 interrupted the collegiate experience. And now campuses and fraternity and sorority life are re-emerging from more than a year of COVID-19 restrictions. Data from focus groups conducted by student affairs professionals suggest that, as a result of the pandemic, traditional-age undergraduate students lack a sense of belonging and have a greater need for social connectedness than in the past. Student affairs professionals have expressed their worries about the “powder keg” of unmet student social needs, alcohol and hazing if a return to the traditional residential experience fully resumes.

While there’s been a high degree of concern among college administrators, however, we’ve heard little discussion about specifically how to prevent or reduce harm among sorority and fraternity members related to alcohol misuse. But college and university leaders must take the time to consider the potential influences on student life of alcohol misuse, even as they have to deal with all the pressures to manage thorny budget issues and safely return their institutions to in-person instruction. It is important that they use the next few months to begin to plan for a very different social milieu this fall semester. If alcohol misuse continues to increase, a related surge in hazing could occur, which could mean more student deaths.

Potential Solutions

Based on our expertise and experience with these issues, we’d like to offer college and university administrators some recommendations.

Engage in dialogue. Many recent news stories have described the tensions between college administrators and members of fraternity and sorority chapters over COVID-19 social restrictions in response to public health concerns -- as well as any sanctions related to violations of those social distancing policies. Besides curtailing their social lives, such restrictions have caused monetary losses for chapters that own private residences and created challenges in recruiting new members. In response, some fraternities and sororities have been the primary culprits in ignoring campus sanctions and attempting to discretely circumvent them.

This trend and some other emerging data suggest what the fall semester may entail for campuses. Previous research by a number of scholars has also suggested that consistent and sustained restrictions on student alcohol use often lead to more frequent heavy episodic (binge) drinking. Students often respond by increasing their drinking as a form of passive protest.

To reduce such tensions, institutions should be mindful to consider alternative programming. This programming should focus on large social events like civic engagement or leadership training, which can provide the same sense of connectedness that socially starved students crave after the pandemic. They should also work to engage chapter leaders in a dialogue about holding their members accountable, which may decrease protest drinking. These include training in protective behavior interventions to keep members safe and understanding their own organizational membership standards.

Be mindful of marker days. The fall semester has more event-specific drinking or “marker days”: ubiquitous undergraduate cultural events socially constructed by students that often feature alcohol and hazing. These include rush week, pregaming during athletic events, “syllabus week,” homecoming, Halloween and others. More take place in the fall semester than they do in the spring term and are coupled with other compounding factors, such as first-year student transition and new student move-in, that exacerbate student alcohol use.

Many students perceive these campus events as rites of passage -- which adds an allure, increases their social desirability and heightens expectations for alcohol to be involved. Fraternities, and even sororities, often participate and are cultural purveyors of such events, reinforcing the perception of them as important traditions.

Given these undergraduate cultural characteristics among fraternities and sororities, it is unclear if most college administrators are prepared for the upcoming fall semester. Institutions should be mindful about monitoring and controlling the environmental conditions, such as off-campus student social and common spaces, particularly on such marker days, to reduce self-harm to students. This would involve tempering student expectations through social norming campaigns and policy enforcement. Institutions should reimplement student monitoring programs, as many did in the COVID-19 era, party patrols and other enforceable policies.

Prepare for a sustained new era. The constellation of last year’s limits on social activities, the possibility of continued social restrictions and more marker days may release a new wave of party culture once again this fall. We could potentially see the emergence of a new Roaring Twenties as a response -- an extremely troublesome eventuality, as it may lead to more hazing-related injuries or deaths.

Generation Z students call parties "darty" (day party), "dayge" (day rager) or "kickbacks (smaller parties). Some evidence-based practices can hopefully be used to intervene against an eruption of a dangerous party culture. College and university administrators should identify and understand the environmental variables on their campus and target interventions to specific fraternity or sorority chapters through protective behavior interventions, policy enforcement and town-gown cooperation. Such protective behavior interventions could include peer education programs that teach responsible alcohol use, sober monitors or peer accountability strategies to reduce binge drinking. Town-gown partnerships should include working with the institutional community relations office to facilitate a good neighbor program that identifies student “party properties” or working with the campus alcohol task force to address problem bars or clubs.

Conduct more research and increase staffing. The strategies we’ve so far described only address alcohol misuse, not hazing. Some observers have noted that campus hazing incidents may have increased but have failed to explore any potential connections to a related spike in dangerous alcohol misuse. Yet while little formal research has identified alcohol use as a predictor of hazing, the majority of hazing deaths via fraternity hazing involve alcohol misuse through forced alcohol consumption. We need more studies to deepen our understanding of hazing, particularly the role of alcohol, as a potential new era of partying emerges on our campuses.

Some of the research that has already been conducted supports the notion that increased staffing is an effective way to stem hazing and alcohol misuse. Campus administrators may find it difficult to provide adequate staff resources for students, given the financial challenges created by COVID-19. But it would be prudent for them to make student safety a strong consideration moving into the fall semester and be ready to shift or reallocate existing resources, such as staff or programming budgets, to address any surge in student alcohol use.

To empower and inform students, parents and their families, the Piazza Center also facilitates the National Fraternity and Sorority Scorecard project to create a clearer picture of how various Greek councils and organizations are performing on key indicators at the national level. The report creates a baseline for comparisons on grades, service and organizational conduct. This can be helpful in gauging the health of individual chapters.

The fraternity and sorority experience can be life changing, but it should not be life threatening. And the latter is more likely to occur if we continue to ignore our own concerns as well as early data indicating what may come. In the near future, our students will fully return to campuses and bring with them a penchant for the tradition and lore of a college experience. Researchers and college administrators alike need to be prepared with intentional responses that could lead to life-saving moments.

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Pietro A. Sasso is a Piazza Center research fellow and assistant professor of educational leadership at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Stevan Veldkamp is executive director of the Penn State Piazza Center.

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