The binge-drinking rate among college students has hovered above 40 percent for the past 20 years, and signs are that partying is getting even harder. Despite decades of research, hundreds of campus task forces, and millions invested in bold experiments, college drinking remains as much of a problem as ever.
The why, when, where, and how students drink has been explained in dozens of studies, and plenty more identify effective intervention and prevention strategies. However, colleges continue to treat alcohol abuse as an individual problem, one that can be fixed primarily through education. Robert F. Saltz, a senior research scientist at the Prevention Research Center, says this train of thought isn’t the way to go about correcting the issue.
“Institutions of higher education are still really committed to the idea that if we just provide the right information or the right message, that will do the trick, despite 30 or 40 years of research that shows that’s not true,” says Saltz, “The message isn’t what changes behavior. Enforcement changes behavior.”
Many colleges continue pursuing disjointed and short-term measures with limited impact and little staying power. For the most part it is non-controversial stuff, for example, angry alumni won’t rise up over an online prevention course warning about the dangers of substance abuse. Most campuses provide alcohol-free housing and run party patrols, and half offer intervention or recovery programs for problem drinkers.
The problem isn’t what the campuses are doing, it is what they aren’t doing. Alcohol policies are not being enforced at tailgates, in dormitories, and at fraternity and sorority houses. Compliance checks to monitor illegal alcohol sales in nearby neighborhoods aren’t being completed. Additionally, very few schools are trying to restrict the number of outlets selling alcohol, and reduce cheap drink specials at local bars, according to the Minnesota researchers.
Bold actions typically aren’t taken because many educators are resistant to the idea of policing students. They would prefer to treat them as young adults who can make good choices with the right motivation.
Some prevention advocates are hoping that the increased scrutiny on campus sexual assault cases will bring more attention to substance abuse, as the connection between the two has already been well established.
Jonathan C. Gibralter, president of Frostburg State University, calculated that alcohol abuse cost $1-million in staff time and lost tuition over a recent four-year period. Putting a price tag on the problem helps keep people motivated to crack down on off-campus parties, work with local law enforcement, and raise expectations among students, he said.
“Culture change can happen. It’s just slow,” says John Porter, director of the Center for Health and Well Being at the University of Vermont, which has grappled with alcohol abuse for more than two decades.