Contra Costa Times, Berkeley, Calif.
Sunday, January 15, 2006
By Matt Krupnick
On a Saturday night just south of the UC Berkeley campus, it’s as if a rainstorm has swept through and brought red plastic cups springing from the soil like mushrooms.
A group of college-age women, plastic cups and 4-foot-tall inflatable palm trees in hand, stumble across an intersection ringed by fraternities and sororities. It’s not quite 11 p.m., and they’ve apparently been drinking for some time.
“You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel,” they sing in the words of the pop group the Bloodhound Gang.
It’s no secret that college students drink at Berkeley and most other campuses. College towns from Berkeley to Buffalo are peppered with bars and liquor stores, and students can find social gatherings nearly any night of the week around the larger campuses.
The associations between college and alcohol aren’t just hollow stereotypes. Several studies have shown that college students drink more than others their age, though the gap narrows after graduation.
Over the past 150 or so years, the nation’s colleges have grappled with whether they can keep their students from drinking heavily. None have found a definitive answer.
For most students, the occasional drink is a nice way to escape the rigors of school. But others make bad choices, leading to drunken-driving deaths, fatal falls and rapes.
As many as 1,700 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related injuries, according to federal statistics. More than 97,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assaults, and more than 696,000 per year are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.
Each alcohol-related death, rape and assault puts more pressure on schools to take control over drinking habits, said Bob Saltz, a Berkeley-based alcohol researcher who has worked with the University of California system.
“It’s like seat belts,” Saltz said. “You just can’t predict when somebody’s going to get hurt. You never know. This could be the time such-and-such falls off the roof.”
With few time-honored prevention techniques showing any chance of stemming college drinking, many schools and prevention experts are switching gears and turning to more scientific methods. The dramatized drunken-driving crashes and beer goggles — which simulate alcohol-impaired sight — of the past are turning into personalized counseling sessions for sports teams, dorm suites and other small groups.
But prevention specialists say even the most insightful strategies of the past 30 years have done little to keep college students from high-risk drinking.
Part of the problem, they say, is that colleges are often unwilling to take note of which methods work and which ones don’t. For decades, prevention techniques largely ranged from shrill warnings to condescending lectures.
Among the prevention pamphlets included in a 1976 federal alcohol manual is one from the Philadelphia area that urges, “Let’s get it together, or you’ll be under the weather!”
That same 30-year-old manual noted the lack of substantive prevention efforts on college campuses.
“One conclusion a person reaches after visiting 62 universities,” the booklet stated, “is that never has so little been said or so little been done in response to a problem which hurts so many so deeply.”
The subsequent decades have shown a double-edged problem with preventing college drinking. Campus officials have been slow to adopt more effective methods, and many students have continuously ignored the posters and demonstrations that have marked the extent of some colleges’ prevention techniques.
Prevention efforts rarely hit home for college students, said Al’Amin Mazrui, a 38-year-old UC Berkeley graduate student who recently dropped out of school because of a persistent drinking problem. If better literature had been readily available when he was at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s, Mazrui said, he might have avoided alcoholism.
“I think (college drinking) is just as prevalent now as it was then,” he said. “That party mode is still alive and well.”
Anti-drinking literature almost always fails to prevent heavy alcohol use, said Saltz, the Berkeley-based prevention specialist. A stack of brochures in a college hallway is not nearly as persuasive as a keg at a party, he said.
“Real life seems to have a bigger impact than a short-term informational thing,” he said. “If you think you could just give somebody a lecture and compete with everything else out there, it’s pretty unrealistic.”
Rather than resorting to scare tactics or boring pamphlets, colleges should be providing students with personalized facts about the effects of alcohol use, said Wesley Perkins, a sociology professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., and one of the country’s foremost prevention experts.
“There are some schools out there that understand this,” Perkins said. “There are, however, a lot of schools out there that hang up a few posters during alcohol awareness week and then they go home for the year.”
One alternative is the concept of social norming, a method being picked up by a growing number of schools. That method, bolstered by Perkins’ recent study of 76,000 college students, uses polling data to convince students that their peers are not actually drinking as much as they think.
Perception plays a major part in college drinking. College-age people have grown up in a world saturated by beer commercials, liquor billboards and movies that link alcohol with college. The alcohol industry spends $4 billion per year on marketing.
In Perkins’ study, more than 70 percent of the students overestimated the amount of alcohol consumed by others at a social gathering. The misperception causes problems, he said.
“If I think my peers are averaging five drinks in one occasion, then there are occasions where I might be nudged in the direction of drinking five or six drinks,” Perkins said. “Everybody feels the pressure of that misperception.”
Like most prevention methods, social norming is unproven in its ability to keep students from chugging a beer. One recent study showed that the technique actually increased drinking in some cases.
While campus officials understand that social acceptance plays a major part in drinking among Greek and other social organizations, they have struggled to connect with everyday students who develop unhealthy drinking habits. Prevention counselors have tried self-esteem exercises, providing more clubs and activities on campus and helping students cope with the stress of college life.
At some schools, including UC Berkeley and St. Mary’s College, counselors have started gathering small, interconnected groups of students together for intimate sessions. For example, counselors ask athletic teams and dormitory floors to look out for each other and prevent drinking problems themselves.
“It’s really (about instilling) the recognition that your behavior impacts your friends,” said Nancy Glenn, who coordinates drug and alcohol prevention at St. Mary’s. “It’s about looking outside yourself.”
UC Berkeley started a mandatory online alcohol-education course for all incoming students this year, and preliminary results show it has cut down on drinking among freshmen who have never previously used alcohol. Counselors are still analyzing the results to determine how useful it has been.
The test asks students about their views on alcohol use by themselves and their peers, including how often someone should get drunk and whether the respondent understands the consequences of drinking too much.
“The campus is sending a message that we know this exists and we know it’s a problem,” said Cathy Kodama, the university’s director of health promotion. “It’s a way of saying we’re concerned about your health and the health of others.”
St. Mary’s also requires the online course, but campus alcohol use nevertheless has continued to be a problem. Some students blame the school’s isolated location and lack of Moraga nightlife for causing students to drink in their dorm rooms.
“I look around and people have that ‘There’s nothing to do on campus so I drink’ excuse,” said 21-year-old John Zabala, the St. Mary’s student body president. “It does create a mentality.”
What Zabala and his St. Mary’s peers have proposed are programs that emphasize responsible drinking rather than abstinence. Older students organized wine tastings and beer gardens in visible spots on campus this year to show younger students they can appreciate alcohol without getting drunk.
That strategy has long been advocated by experts.
“Modifications of the social environment … can do much to encourage responsible drinking behavior,” noted the 1976 manual by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
St. Mary’s in particular has struggled to find ways to promote safe drinking behavior. Students often drive to Walnut Creek, Berkeley or San Francisco for nightlife, and the school recently canceled its Safe Ride program, which provided cab rides to students.
“Students weren’t using it properly,” Zabala said. “People were using it to go to Blockbuster and back, to the grocery store and back.”
Bad town-gown relations have also stymied prevention efforts at many campuses, with university and city leaders failing to work together to cut down on alcohol availability and reform societal attitudes. Liquor stores, bars and billboards often are grouped close to college campuses.
Near Humboldt State University, about six hours north of San Francisco, students in the college town of Arcata have their choice of four bars and a brewery, all grouped tightly together within walking distance of the campus.
In recent years, Berkeley city and campus police have taken unprecedented steps to curb underage drinking at the many bars, restaurants and liquor stores near the university. But those efforts have not kept students 21 and older from imbibing, heavily and dangerously at times.
In May, 18-year-old UC Berkeley freshman Christopher Talbott was arrested after running his Jeep onto a curb and critically injuring 20-year-old student Cathy Madrigal. Talbott, a member of the Cal swim team who did not respond to interview requests, pleaded no contest to felony drunken driving and agreed to a 60-day jail term.
Experts say such incidents point to a deep-seated acceptance of alcohol and that society at large must take responsibility. Communities could do more to decrease alcohol marketing, liquor licenses and drunken driving, they say.
“The colleges can’t do it alone,” said Ralph Hingson, the federal government’s foremost prevention researcher. “They’ve got to work with the communities to change the overall culture of drinking.”
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 925-943-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
CONSEQUENCES OF COLLEGE DRINKING
• About 1,700 U.S. college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, or about 1 student per every 10,000 enrolled.
• Nearly 600,000 per year are unintentionally injured under the influence of alcohol.
• Almost 700,000 students per year are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.
• More than 97,000 students per year are victims of alcohol-related rapes or sexual assaults.
• About 400,000 students had unprotected sex while intoxicated, and more than 100,000 were too drunk to know if they had consented to sex.
• About one-quarter of college students report that drinking has negatively affected their school work, including missing class, falling behind, doing poorly on tests or papers and receiving lower grades overall.
• More than 150,000 students develop an alcohol-related health problem, and up to 1.5 percent say they have attempted suicide due to drinking or drug use.
• More than 2 million students per year drive under the influence of alcohol.
• About 11 percent of college drinkers say they have damaged property under the influence.
• More than 30 percent of college students meet criteria for alcohol abuse.