By Beth Rosenberg
The NCAA News
A pilot program aimed at encouraging student-athletes to make healthy and responsible decisions has shown positive results in the short time it has been implemented on eight Division III campuses.
Student-Athletes Taking Active Responsible Roles, or STARR, highlights the positive behavior of the majority of student-athletes to help others make informed decisions about alcohol and drug use and other issues of importance to student-athletes.
The program, funded through the NCAA’s Division III Initiatives Task Force, is based on the social norms approach, which uses simple facts about alcohol use and other issues on a particular campus to reduce misperceptions and help students make healthy choices. For example, rather than putting out messages that stress the dangers of alcohol abuse, the message may be that the majority of student-athletes on a particular campus drink only once per week or less.
“A lot of things that have been done with prevention in the past with alcohol abuse, they’ve not really gotten very good results,” said Denise Bierly, head women’s basketball coach at Eastern Connecticut State University, one of the eight schools in the pilot program. “This area seems to have gotten better results than most and we wanted to try something new.”
Besides Eastern Connecticut State, the other schools that participated in the pilot program were Baldwin-Wallace College, Carroll College (Wisconsin), Goucher College, Linfield College, Rockford College, State University College at Cortland and Wesleyan University (Connecticut).
“This is a great way to showthere are far more positives out there,” said Michelle Nicopolis Gallagher, CHAMPS/Life Skills director at Baldwin-Wallace. “It’s the whole idea of busting that negative perception and showing the reality.”
Though the pilot program was originally intended to run for only two years, five of the eight schools, including Eastern Connecticut State and Baldwin-Wallace, are continuing the STARR pilot program for a third year.
Program results were derived from surveys given in November 2001 and again in November 2002. Students were asked a variety of questions, such as: “How many alcohol drinks, on average, do you think (you) typically consume at parties and bars?” and “Overall, what percentage of athletes at your school do you think consume no alcohol beverages at all?”
The purpose of the survey was to get information to disseminate and help break myths about alcohol use by student-athletes.
Participation rates in the anonymous surveys varied at the eight schools. For the first survey, rates ranged from a high of 82 percent to a low of 46 percent, with an average participation rate of 69 percent. For the second survey, participation rates ranged from a high of 81 percent to a low of 17 percent, with an average participation rate of 54 percent.
That information gathered from the initial survey was then circulated in a variety of ways, including screen savers on computers, posters hung around campus and giveaways at sporting events.
Between the time of the first and second survey, students had about three to six months of exposure to messages about alcohol use and other issues on their campus.
The use of data that pertains to that specific institution, and not colleges in general, is one of the key components of the program, said H. Wesley Perkins, professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Perkins, along with biology professor David Craig, was a consultant to the STARR program.
“Everybody thinks they’re at the top of the list (of party schools) and so it’s easy to look at national data, or data that don’t pertain specifically to their school, and write it off,” Perkins said. “The closer it is to home, based on credible data, the more of a challenge it is against students who hold those massive misperceptions.”
Data from the pilot program indicated that six of the eight schools showed a statistically significant reduction in perceived alcohol use among student-athletes. Four of those schools showed a reduction in actual alcohol consumption, and three showed a reduction in negative consequences experienced due to drinking.
At Baldwin-Wallace, for example, the percentage of student-athletes who said they drank once a week, less or not at all, increased from 75 to 78 percent between the first and second survey, Gallagher said.
Four of the eight schools showed a statistically significant reduction in perceived tobacco use among student-athletes, while one of those schools showed a reduction in actual use.
Three of the schools showed a statistically significant increase in student-athletes’ hours spent studying, while two of the eight schools showed an increase in student-athletes’ time spent volunteering per week.
Bierly said at Eastern Connecticut State, the number of student-athletes who said they never cut class due to drinking increased from six out of 10 in the first survey to seven out of 10 in the second survey.
“I’m very happy with the results,” said Perkins. He added that the findings were especially encouraging because though the program had been in various stages for two years, most students were exposed to the messages for only three to six months before taking the second survey.
“I was expecting that we would get results that would be perhaps in the right direction, but maybe not statistically significant and maybe get a few results that were statistically significant,” he said. “If you look at all the schools that were involved, and the number of measures where we did get statistically significant results in such a short time, that’s what made it so surprising.”
Perkins said he hopes to see even better results after a third survey is taken next month at five of the eight schools.
Social norms approach
Perkins said the social norms approach, of which he has been called “the father,” came about from research done in the 1980s that studies patterns of alcohol use among college students. During this research, Perkins said he found that students tended to overestimate the alcohol consumption of their peers.
“The vast majority don’t have problems and don’t cause problems for others,” he said. “The perception way outpaces the actual norm.”
Also, Perkins said, his research showed that general standards of reducing alcohol and drug abuse didn’t seem to be working.
“We’ve known for many, many years now that strategies that just try to give students pharmacological information and hope they’ll avoid risky behavior, teaching them about the affects of alcohol and other drugs, don’t work,” he said. “We know that trying to scare them with what we call ‘health terrorism,’ basically trying to scare the health into students by telling them all the awful things that are going to happen to them if they drink or use other drugs, that doesn’t work either.”
In the wake of that, Perkins said, came the realization that the opposite should be done. Students should be given accurate information, based on credible data, about what the real norms are in order to dispel or reduce their misperceptions.
But not everyone involved in the study of alcohol use among college students supports Perkins’ theory.
Henry Wechsler, director of college alcohol studies at the Harvard School of Public Health, conducted a study that he said found there was no evidence that programs based on the social norms approach reduce student drinking.
“We looked at social norms marketing programs in every conceivable way to see if they had any positive effect,” Wechsler said in a recent release about his study. “We evaluated multiple measures of student drinking. We also looked at schools where the programs had been in existence the longest, and where the largest proportion of students had been exposed to the programs. And we examined each school individually.
“But we found no decline in the quantity, frequency or volume of student alcohol intake on social norms campuses — in fact, we found an increase in two of the seven measures of drinking,” he said.
Wechsler’s findings were based on data taken in 1997, 1999 and 2001 from administrators and students at 120 colleges, said Toben Nelson, who worked with Wechsler on the study.
Perkins said Wechsler’s study was never designed to be a study of social norms and that the survey contained no questions that allowed Wechsler to adequately evaluate if a school had actually done a true social norms campaign, adding that in the late 1990s, few schools were doing true social norms campaigns.
Nelson said that although the study was not specifically designed to look at social norms, it did address that issue. He also said most administrators were very familiar with social norms and able to accurately answer questions about social norms campaigns on their campuses.
Nelson said decreasing availability of alcohol to underage drinkers, enforcing underage drinking laws and raising alcohol taxes and prices may be some of the more effective ways to curb drinking on college campuses, though he noted that many of these actions require help from the outside community.
The NCAA program
Despite those who may dispute the social norms approach, it receives high marks from those who were part of the NCAA’s pilot program at the Division III schools.
“I think we’ve definitely seen a positive spin on our campus,” said Bierly from Eastern Connecticut State. “The main thing that I’ve seen is that student-athletes are talking about it.”
Based on the preliminary success of the pilot program, the Division III Initiatives Task Force decided the following at its September 16 meeting:
The pilot’s findings will be forwarded to the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports. The task force asked that the committee consider a recommendation for all divisions to fund the STARR program with Association-wide resources. Those resources could be used to produce a STARR social norms toolkit based on the knowledge gained during the pilot program.
Should Association funds be denied, use the information gained during the pilot program and the remaining funds from the Division III 2003-04 STARR budget to begin developing the toolkit for Division III institutions. The toolkit would make the STARR pilot a turnkey program by limiting program expenses such as consultant costs, orientation programs and overhead.
Expand the NCAA Division III Initiative Grants program to include access to the STARR toolkit. This would allow Division III schools interested in starting an alcohol-abuse prevention program the opportunity to apply for an initiatives grant and receive the toolkit to implement their program.
Perkins said he would encourage other schools to pick up this program.
“We haven’t seen any other type of interventions produce positive results yet,” he said. “If this type of intervention can produce a positive result, then we should be doing it.”