Alcohol Abuse On Campus: Is the Administration to Blame as much as the Students?
It’s autumn, time for colleges across the country to confront the annual task of persuading incoming freshmen that there is, indeed, such a thing as too much alcohol. But despite their earnest efforts, the colleges continue to face an uphill battle.
Many universities now require students to begin taking alcohol-abuse education courses online even before the school year starts. Two of these programs, AlcoholEdu and e-CHECKUP TO GO (e-CHUG), are used on hundreds of campuses as a proactive tool against alcohol abuse.
But two independent studies released within the past two months have shown that while the programs, especially AlcoholEdu, are initially effective in curbing abuse, their effects are not long-lasting.
“You can’t expect a two-and-a-half to three-hour course to forever change someone’s behavior, especially when the typical college environment is working against you,” says Boston University professor Dr. William DeJong, who headed one of the studies.
DeJong’s study found that students who had completed the AlcoholEdu course were 4.64 times less likely to undergo negative effects from alcohol than students who had partially completed or failed to participate in the program. Those negative effects included alcohol poisoning, acute intoxication and injuries that occurred while the student was intoxicated. The study took place at a northeastern college with a student population of 5,000 undergraduate students.
The second study, conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse Alcoholism (NIAAA), which monitored 30 schools over three years, found that freshmen who took the AlcoholEdu course reported significantly reduced alcohol use in their fall semester, but the effects failed to last through the spring.
AlcholEdu is comprised of five 3-hour sections, the first four of which typically are completed before a freshman arrives on campus for his first semester. The final section, taken after arrival, touches on educational points such as alcohol laws and defining a standard drink size.
Mallie J. Paschall, Ph.D.,who was on the research team for the NIAAA study, believes that, while AlcoholEdu is the only online alcohol program proven to be beneficial in the first semester, the management of environmental factors may have been to blame for the overall results.
“Perhaps [the course’s] benefit is eventually overcome by students’ exposure to alcohol and peer drinking behavior,” Paschall said.
The NIAAA study recommended that schools make AlcoholEdu mandatory for incoming students to help lower risks during their first semester, and that they should run the program in conjunction with “environment management strategies” that would require university administrations to help eliminate the presence of alcohol around campus.
AlcoholEdu CEO Brandon Busteed agrees. Even though his program has been proven to be one of the most effective, college-based interventions, he admits it’s not the “silver bullet” to end alcohol abuse.
“There is a very strong enforcement aspect to this,” Busteed said. “Most college officials are very leery to go the enforcement route because there is so much resistance from students, so much resistance from parents, so some of the more effective strategies that campuses can do is the one they are least willing to put elbow grease into.” Such strategies would include enforcing the 21-year-old age limit and working with local bars and restaurants to end attractions like happy hours and ladies-free nights.
“The cheaper alcohol is, the more they drink. Advertising glorifies underaged drinking; grind this all together and you’ve created an environment that breeds drinking,” DeJong said.
At Boston University, as at many other campuses across the country, the E-CHUG program is administered as a punishment to students who have committed an alcohol-related infraction. According to Elizabeth Douglas, manager of the school’s Wellness and Prevention Services, BU finds the course to be a useful tool. But many students say they have trouble seeing any immediate benefits.
Meaghan Quinn, a BU sophomore, took the e-CHUG course in her freshman year, and though she said the statistics she learned were eye-opening, she believes the information had no lasting impression.
“It didn’t change my habits at all, I still did the same things I was doing,” Quinn said. “It didn’t affect me.”
Another BU student, a resident assistant, said the online course’s “hands-off” approach was ineffective.
“Honestly, I think [the university] is not progressively where they need to be. The punishments need to be more severe. How impactive is an online course?”
Along with online interventions, Boston University is part of the National College Health Improvement Project, a 31-school public health initiative that, using 20 years of research, has tried for the past year to educate universities about alcohol on campus.
Every six months, NCHIP holds conferences focusing on different interventions and methods and how universities can adapt study results into solutions.
But some members of the medical community remain skeptical of the program and consider the collaboration an inadequate effort that doesn’t focus on the issues at large.
“The whole effort is only 18 months. Anyone who had worked on complicated health issues would look at this timetable and just guffaw,” said DeJong, who attended the last NCHIP conference in July. He says the problem of alcohol abuse among college students is being underestimated.
“We often talk about adolescents’ magical thinking that [alcohol-induced accidents] will never happen to me. I often thought many college presidents think the same way, that it will never happen here,” he said.
A simple solution, he suggested, would be to provide more activities around campus.
“Students have a lot unstructured time; the average student spends less than 10 hours a week studying -- what else is there to do? Schools could be getting more things for students to do.”
But others, like BU senior Kelly Koltun, believe some students are just not built for change.
“The people that would be prone to drink heavily and do dumb stuff when they drink, I think they always will be the same.” she said, “It’s part of how you were raised and your values.”