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Colleges Split in Approaches to Student Binge Drinking But United in Strong Concern Over Student Drinking

Press Release   |   Abstract   |   Article

Most schools try educational and social norms campaigns; alcohol restricted at some schools, but not where administrators are most concerned about drinking

BOSTON (March 15, 2004)—A new survey released today by the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, finds that while most college administrators on America’s campuses are concerned about heavy drinking, they are split about what actions to take. The research appears in the March issue of the Journal of American College Health.

In the survey, completed in 2002, 81 percent of college administrators of four-year colleges described students’ alcohol use as a problem or a major problem on their campus. This finding is significantly higher than the results of a similar survey completed by the same researchers in 1999, when only 68 percent of respondents expressed this level of concern about students’ drinking.

“It is clear that the nation’s colleges are collectively concerned about student drinking on their campuses but are quite divided about what programs to put in place to alleviate the problem of heavy and destructive drinking,” said Henry Wechsler, Ph.D., lead author of the study and director of the College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Alcohol use was more likely to be considered a major problem by administrators of large schools (more than 10,000 full-time undergraduates) and highly competitive schools, the data showed.

Presidents and senior administrators of all U.S. colleges accredited by the American Council on Education, offering baccalaureate degrees, and housing at least 10 percent of their undergraduates on campus were sent a questionnaire. The study sample of 747 school administrators is representative of all U.S. colleges and universities with respect to criteria such as geographic location, number of students enrolled, public vs. private, and religious vs. secular. The study, funded by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, had a response rate of 68 percent.

Prevention Measures

All schools were taking some action to manage student drinking, the survey found. Data collected reflect trends in these prevention measures and suggest that the source of funding for prevention may influence a college’s choice of prevention strategies. Administrators surveyed reported using the following prevention measures:

Banning alcohol on campus: A minority of colleges --34 percent-- have banned alcohol on campus for any student, regardless of age. Small schools, schools in the Southern states, less competitive schools and historically Black colleges were more likely to have alcohol-free campuses.

Banning alcohol in residence halls: Forty-three percent of all schools prohibited alcohol in all campus residence halls. This includes schools that are completely alcohol free. In addition, 81 percent of colleges offered at least some alcohol-free dorms or floors.

Restricting alcohol at events: Forty-four percent of all colleges restricted alcohol use in at least four of the following events: home athletic contests, home tailgate events, home pre- or post-game parties, homecoming celebrations, on-campus dances or concerts, on-campus banquets or receptions, and alumni events. Nearly one-half of all small schools used these restrictions, as compared to one-fifth of large schools.

Providing alcohol education: Alcohol education is common on most campuses for high-risk drinking populations of freshmen, fraternity or sorority members or college athletes. The study found that 84 percent of schools provided alcohol education for freshmen, 72 percent provided it for fraternity and sorority members, and 69 percent for athletes.

Conducting social norms marketing campaigns: Half of the colleges in the survey reported conducting social norms marketing campaigns. These campaigns aim to reduce student demand for alcohol by correcting misperceptions about the drinking behavior of their peers through education and motivation. Colleges most likely to use this approach were larger schools, more competitive schools, schools in the Northeast, and schools with fraternities and sororities. Schools using social norms marketing were less likely to provide alcohol-free residence halls or alcohol-free campuses than schools that did not use this approach.

Managing of substance abuse among students: Some form of counseling and treatment program for students who abuse alcohol was offered by 90 percent of campuses. However, the scope of such treatment was not ascertained.

Campuswide coordination: Eighty-one percent of colleges employ an assigned substance abuse official, and 61 percent have a task force to deal with substance abuse issues. Approximately half of schools have a cooperative agreement with community agencies to deal with alcohol abuse.

College presidents who perceived drinking as a major problem on their campuses were less likely to ban alcohol or to restrict it at special events. Twenty percent of schools at which drinking was considered to be a major problem had instituted bans on all alcohol, compared to 54 percent of those viewing drinking as a minor problem or no problem.

Funding Sources and Their Influence

College administrators cited three main sources for funding of their alcohol education and prevention efforts:

Public funding: Thirty-five percent of schools reported receiving public funding from such sources as the U.S. Department of Education, a state health department, a state alcohol beverage control board, or another state agency. Large public schools and Northeastern schools were most likely to receive public funds.

Alcohol industry funding: Twenty-one percent of schools reported receiving funding from the alcohol industry. The NCAA Anheuser-Busch CHOICES program funded 63 percent of the campuses that received industry funding. Local beverage distributors or outlets funded 31 percent of these schools. The Century Council, an organization created by the nation’s leading distillers, funded prevention programs at 21 percent of these campuses, while 11 percent received funding from other national alcoholic beverage manufacturers or distributors. Large schools and public schools were also more likely than others to receive industry funding.

Foundation funding: Twelve percent of schools reported receiving prevention funding from a private foundation.

Schools that receive either public or alcohol industry funding are more likely than others to choose alcohol education and social norms marketing as their prevention measures. In recent years these sources have awarded large sums of money in grant support for social norms campaigns.

“It’s possible that the availability of funding for social norms campaigns has influenced many campuses to turn to this approach,” said Dr. Wechsler. “The availability of funds to implement these approaches may discourage the use of other efforts such as restricting drinking on campus.”

Dr. Wechsler said that these circumstances would be unfortunate, because social norms marketing has not been proven to be effective. Previously published research from the College Alcohol Study did find that lower alcohol availability, limited access, higher prices and stronger control policies were associated with lower rates of heavy drinking.

Joining Dr. Wechsler as authors of the article, “Colleges Respond to Student Binge Drinking: Reducing Student Demand or Limiting Access,” are: Mark Seibring, M.T.S.; I-Chao Liu, M.D.; and Marilyn Ahl, Ph.D., all of the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, based in Princeton, N.J., is the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care. It concentrates its grantmaking in four goal areas: to assure that all Americans have access to quality health care at reasonable cost; to improve the quality of care and support for people with chronic health conditions; to promote healthy communities and lifestyles; and to reduce the personal, social and economic harm caused by substance abuse - tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs. To this end, the Foundation supports scientifically valid, peer-reviewed research on the prevention and treatment of illegal and underage substance use, and the effects of substance abuse on the public's health and well-being.

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