The Harvard Crimson, Cambridge, Mass.
By Elizabeth M. Doherty
By the end of last year, University Health Services (UHS) was starting to look more like an after-bar than a hospital on Friday and Saturday nights, with dangerously drunken students pouring in at a record pace. Some were passed out, some had alcohol poisoning, and some just wanted a place to crash. The University was getting worried-were students drinking more? Had reckless binging become cool? Why had there been an upswing in undergraduate alcohol-related admissions at UHS from 1998 to 2004? Nobody in University Hall seemed to know.
Enter Ryan M. Travia, an expert on student drinking, who honed his craft at Boston College’s Office of Drug Education and has been the coordinator at Dartmouth’s Alcohol and Drug Education Program for the last two years. He relocated to Boston this past summer and in August took up the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services director’s chair, a position created this year.
Travia was going to clean up this town-and he was going to do it with carabiners and stress-relief balls, all bearing messages about undergraduate drinking (or lack thereof).
An awkward arsenal, perhaps, but Travia’s no militant prohibitionist. After his experience at Dartmouth, he has no illusions about undergraduate alcohol consumption, and he doesn’t expect to steer students down a road of abstinence. Information would be his weapon of choice, and in the months since his installment, he has been aggressively spreading his neon-colored freebies around campus like a marketing maven.
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
At the “Empowering You” event for freshmen, Travia printed messages on napkins and cups in hopes of prompting responsible drinking discussions over cookies and cola. He plans on distributing thought-provoking Nalgene bottles to sports teams, and both athletes and non-athletes alike will receive informative, neon-colored pens, available at the health fair in mid-October. “Most Harvard students (93%) don’t let alcohol interfere with academics,” reads one pen, sourcing the info to a National College Health Association survey from 2004.
Travia calls it the “social norms” marketing campaign-a branch of the national program of the same name (the National Social Norms Resource Center) that has been administered in universities across the country. This new effort in the battle to tame dangerous drinking habits is based on the idea that most college students overestimate how often, and how much, their peers actually drink. If students knew the facts, Travia says, they would feel less pressure to engage in risky behaviors.
The social norms approach was given a boost late last summer when H. Wesley Perkins, an anthropology professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, published a study with two colleagues saying that over 70 percent of students nationwide think their peers drink more than they actually do. At schools where people drank an average of four drinks when they “partied,” according to the study, 37 percent of students reported a belief that their peers’ drank an average of five to six drinks, and 34.9 percent overestimated to the tune of seven drinks.
Such misconceptions-most common among freshmen, according to the study-can make students feel pressure to drink more than they can handle.
Perkins, a self-proclaimed pioneer in social norms research, says that his study-which surveyed 76,000 students from 130 schools-was five times the size of any previously-attempted study of its kind.
Since the 1980s, social norms programs have been growing increasingly popular among colleges, high schools, and intercollegiate athletics. Perkins is one of the self-proclaimed “original researchers” of social norms. In both 1999 and 2005, his program was chosen by the U.S. Department of Education as a “Model Program in Higher Education.”
NOT QUITE INFALLIBLE
Nevertheless, the social norms approach has its critics. One of its most vocal detractors, in fact, is Henry Wechsler, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.
In 2003, Wechsler published a controversial study examining 37 schools with social norms programs and 61 without them. He concluded that the program didn’t make any difference-that schools employing “social norms” saw no decrease in the amount of alcohol consumed. In some cases, Wechsler’s study said, drinking actually got worse.
Perkins is quick and eager to defend his work, however, questioning Wechsler’s methods of data collection and denying his findings. One of the biggest problems with Wechsler’s study, says Perkins, was that it determined whether a school used social norms by posing it as a yes or no question to a single administrator; Wechsler did not ask how or to what extent the schools implemented their campaigns. According to Perkins, the study does not distinguish the social norms prevention approach from other anti-drinking strategies.
In 2003, Perkins published a statement entitled “Harvard Study of Social Norms Deserves ‘F’ Grade for Flawed Research Design,” writing that, “When you have the Harvard name and a large grant for publicity, you can use some very questionable data and still make your work sound definitive in the media.”
FM tried to contact Wechsler for an interview, but the professor responded only with a terse e-mail message: “My study speaks for itself.” Perkins was skeptical about Wechsler’s reticence. “That response that you got is not the first time that I have heard that,” he told FM. “I think it would be very difficult for him to publicly defend his position.”
Despite Wechsler’s criticisms of the social norms program, many schools have stuck by it, and some have reported great success. From 1995 to 2000, for instance, Hobart and William Smith Colleges reported a 30.2 percent decline in the number of students who are frequent heavy drinkers. Northern Illinois University, meanwhile, reported a 44 percent reduction in heavy episodic consumption of alcohol over a ten-year period.
Some critics questioned the reliability of such statistics, pointing out that the majority of the data is collected through self-response surveys. In order to give the numbers more validity, some schools-including Hobart and William Smith, University of North Carolina, and Kent State-have started administering anonymous breathalyzer tests in front of dorms between 10 pm and 3 a.m. The results have shown that the majority of students come home having done little drinking, according to Perkins. And as Perkins says, “[Blood Alcohol Content] tests don’t lie.”
Not to worry-Travia isn’t planning on introducing any campus-wide breathalyzer tests any time soon. He knows that social norms programs work better when they’re administered on a smaller scale. So far, he has talked to sports teams, groups of freshmen, and proctors. Over the course of the next year, he wants to work with final clubs, sororities, and fraternities-groups that are considered at high risk for dangerous drinking.
He’s being realistic, though. His work at Dartmouth, after all, while partially effective, didn’t seem to make any dramatic impact on students’ drinking patterns. Then again, Travia only took the reins in 2003. Before that, he says, there was no one in charge to spearhead the effort, and the program floundered.
At Harvard, his energies are focused, and he’s got enough neon pens to spread his word far and wide.
Still, when told that 78 percent of Harvard students consumed between zero and five drinks the last time they “partied,” one male athlete hanging out at Saturday’s Harvard vs. Lehigh tailgate told FM that if he ever called it a night with so little in his system, he would “go home and cry.” A shirtless student nearby called the statistic “a lie.”
“We’ve already had seven people puke today,” he said. “I think drinking is cool.”
Sounds like Travia might have his work cut out for him.