The party’s over: Parents and prospective students are increasingly wary about binge drinking at U.S. colleges and universities
Concerned about binge drinking at college, more parents and prospective students are checking out anti-alcohol policies
By Daniel Mcginn
Nov. 27, 2000 issue – They are stories that make every parent’s heart ache. On Nov. 10, University of Michigan sophomore Byung Soo Kim celebrated his 21st birthday by trying to drink 21 shots of whisky.
HE DOWNED 20, then passed out, turned blue and stopped breathing. As Kim lay dying in a Michigan hospital later that next night, seven college students hopped into a Jeep 500 miles away on the campus of Colgate University.
Moments later, the driver, a Colgate student who authorities say was dangerously intoxicated, veered off the road and struck a tree, killing four of the passengers. And by the time Monday classes began, five proud families who’d sent their children away to school were busy planning their funerals.
As tragedies like these fill the evening news, they’re increasing the anxiety for parents of college-bound students. While this year’s seniors winnow through applications, experts see families beginning to consider campus alcohol abuse as a factor in college selection. Surveys show that just under half of all college students drink excessively (defined as five drinks for males and four for females in a single sitting-a proportion that hasn’t budged despite a decade of work to reduce it. Even for families who trust their children to abstain, steering clear of campuses with rampant abuse can still be smart, since sober students can suffer from the assaults, sex crimes and poor academic environments that go with heavy drinking.
Finding out just how much drinking goes on at different schools isn’t easy, but a variety of organizations are trying to help. Says Bill Modzeleski of the U.S. Department of Education: “We’re trying to get families to understand there are schools out there focusing on these issues, so they can factor that into their college selection.”
That’s a message Cat O’Shaughnessy already understands. As the relative of a recovering alcoholic, she was determined to find a college where she didn’t have to drink to fit in. That resolve grew after visiting schools that seemed awash in liquor. “You’d walk down the dorm hallways on Saturday afternoon and people would still be puking,” she says. O’Shaughnessy didn’t consider schools where fraternities dominated social life. On campus tours she grilled students about the party scene. She liked what she found at George Washington University. “The urban environment in Washington, D.C., made her feel like the campus extended beyond tailgating and Friday-night parties,” says Andrew Bryan, a college consultant who helped with her search. O’Shaughnessy, now a freshman, has sipped a few drinks, but she happily spends most weekend nights at dance clubs or watching DVDs.
AVOIDING THE ‘PARTY SCHOOLS’
Reliable school-by-school data on student drinking isn’t readily available. The best-known ranking of “party schools,” done by The Princeton Review, is based on student opinions, and its editor admits it’s not scientific. Experts offer other rules of thumb. Schools with large fraternity systems traditionally harbor more excessive drinkers. Some studies also show heavier drinking at rural colleges, which have fewer off-campus entertainment options. Not surprisingly, Christian and women’s colleges have less drinking. More definitive data are on the way. Last month Mothers Against Drunk Driving approved plans to begin ranking colleges based on how well they curb student drinking. Its list could be published as soon as next fall.
Until then, parents can do their own sleuthing. During campus tours, watch for posters touting cheap drinks at bars, or too many empty beer cans in dorms. Time visits to see how students behave when they’re not studying. “Go on Thursday or Friday and stay over,” says Dr. Henry Wechsler, a Harvard professor who studies student drinking. Stroll the campus near midnight and gauge the raucousness. Ask admissions officials about alcohol policies, such as whether they notify parents of students caught with alcohol. Schools that take alcohol abuse seriously are willing to talk about it, so be wary of vague or evasive answers.
Some schools have signed on to national programs to combat heavy drinking. Ten schools, including Lehigh and the University of Vermont, take part in a program called A Matter of Degree, which tries to change campus cultures to cut drinking. Some schools are studying whether they’re scheduling too few classes on Fridays, which might spur Thursday-night partying. They’re also restricting tailgating and stadium beer sales. The U.S. Department of Education has begun highlighting innovative antidrinking practices; high-school guidance offices now have a brochure listing model schools.
Other colleges are trying a “social norms” approach, spreading the message to students that their peers drink less than they think, in an attempt to make heavy drinking less socially acceptable.
As families begin focusing on campus drinking, schools that crack down can win applicants. After years of rampant alcohol abuse at the University of Rhode Island, administrators went on the offensive, banning alcohol from campus parties and toughening penalties for students caught drinking. To really change campus culture, officials discourage heavy drinkers from applying. “I’m very direct,” says president Robert Carothers. “I tell parents and kids that if they’re looking for a place to abuse alcohol, don’t come here-you won’t be happy.”
No matter which school a family chooses, there’s no guarantee bad things won’t happen to good kids. “Any individual on any particular night can make bad choices,” says Wesley Perkins, a Hobart and William Smith Colleges sociologist. The best protection is to talk to kids about sensible drinking long before they depart for college. When it comes to alcohol, a concerned parent can be a better teacher than anyone with a Ph.D.
© 2000 Newsweek, Inc.