October 13, 1999 Geneva, NY – How much beer do college students think their friends are drinking? How often do those students assume their friends are partying?
Research begun several years ago on the Hobart and William Smith campus shows that most college students have dramatic misperceptions about the alcohol consumption of their peers. And those misperceptions have been shown to have a significant effect on their behavior.
In an effort to give students accurate information from which to make choices, the Colleges initiated a comprehensive campaign developed by their Alcohol Education Program in 1997. That program has been extremely successful, and it was recently lauded and rewarded with a grant of $74,454 from the U.S. Department of Education to continue and expand its initiatives. It was one of only seven programs in the country to receive this recognition and funding, and it was the only small liberal arts school on the list.
Research begun in 1982 by H. Wesley Perkins, HWS professor of sociology, and some of his colleagues, demonstrated a pervasive and continuing pattern of misperceptions about alcohol and other drug norms among peer students. No matter what the actual patterns of use were, the students thought everyone was drinking more, and a pattern of heavy use was reinforced.
In 1996, Perkins teamed up with David Craig, professor of chemistry at Hobart and William Smith, to dramatically expand the Alcohol Education Project, designed to educate students about what's really going on. The success of the HWS program can be demonstrated not only by the reduction in alcohol-abusive behavior, but also by the fact that it has been adopted by many other institutions across the country as a model for their own efforts.
The program uses a combination of methods to educate students, including an electronic media campaign and inclusion of alcohol-abuse awareness issues in the classroom. For example, the HWS campus computer network displays “campus factoids,” bits of interesting research results, as the screen saver on all computers. Students can browse “factoids” and “reactoids” as well as related student-produced videos, supplemental research data, and photos.
And Perkins and Craig teach an interdisciplinary course titled “Alcohol Use and Abuse: Causes and Consequences,” which illustrates for students both the social and chemical ramifications of abuse and the influence of social norms. The education program has led to significant reductions in misperceptions of peer norms, reductions in heavy binge-drinking behavior, and substantial reductions in related harm during the first 18 months of intervention.
The grant award was made through the U.S. Department of Education's “Model Programs in Higher Education” competition, which was designed to identify the most effective programs in the country. Competition winners will have their programs promoted at every college, university, and high school in the country, and will be recognized at the U.S. Department of Education national meeting, November 6-9, in Albany N.Y. The official award presentation will be made later in Washington, D.C.
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