Is College Driving Students to Drink?

Tom Wood

College binge drinking is a huge problem. In 1989, a survey of college and university presidents by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the American Council on Education found that the presidents viewed substance abuse (including drugs, but especially alcohol) as the most serious problem their campuses faced. It was rated as a more serious problem than student apathy, campus security and crime, inadequate facilities, and interracial/intercultural relations.

In the late 90s, Howard and Matthew Greene conducted interviews and questionnaire surveys at twenty of the leading colleges and universities: the eight Ivies, nine of the top private schools (the University of Chicago, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Wesleyan, Georgetown, MIT, Northwestern, Stanford, and Williams); and three of the leading public universities (UC Berkeley, Wisconsin-Madison, and the North Carolina-Chapel Hill). In their book, Inside the Top Colleges (1998), they report that more than 50% of students at the campuses they covered reported direct or indirect effect on them of alcohol or drug abuse in their college experience. The Greenes say nothing about how excessive student drinking varies by field or major (and I am not aware of any social science evidence that addresses that question), but some of the student responses in the book are interesting. The Greenes asked students to identify the two factors that negatively affect campus life at their colleges; “too much alcohol” was one of the two factors mentioned by respondents at MIT (although, oddly enough, MIT ranked towards the bottom of the charts on pp. 153-154 giving students’ perceptions of the direct and indirect influence of campus alcohol consumption). Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and Williams were rated the worst by students for the “direct negative effect of alcohol consumption” on their college lives (p. 153).

Findings from five national data sets are in general agreement that approximately 40 percent of U.S. college students engage in heavy episodic drinking—sometimes called binge drinking, often defined as five or more drinks at a single sitting. The five data sets are:

1.      The Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study (CAS);

2.      The Core Institute (Core), Southern Illinois University;

3.      Monitoring the Future (MTF), University of Michigan;

4.      The National College Health Risk Behavior Survey (NCHRBS), Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (unlike the others, this is not ongoing); and

5.      The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Is College Alcohol Abuse Greater at Some Kinds of Institutions of Higher Education Than At Others?

Unfortunately, breakdowns of student abuse of alcohol according to the Carnegie categories used to classify institutions of higher education in the U.S. are unavailable. I have, however, found data comparing 2-year community colleges and 4-year colleges, and data on binge drinking at one leading American public research university (UC Berkeley).

Community Colleges

According to a recent study that appeared in the Journal of American College Health (2005), binge drinking is lower at community colleges than at traditional four-year colleges:

Binge drinking and alcohol-related problems among students at traditional 4-year universities have been well documented. However, little is known about the frequency of such behaviors and its consequences among community college students, who comprise roughly 44% of all undergraduate students in the United States. The present study examined binge drinking and alcohol-related problems in 762 (61% female) ethnically diverse (65% Caucasian, 20% Hispanic, 9% African American) community college students …. Based on gender-specific criteria, 25% engaged in binge drinking.

The 25% figure for community college students who engage in binge drinking is markedly lower than the 40% figure that has been found, with great consistency, for students attending the traditional, 4-year colleges.

The University of California at Berkeley

The data I have found on UC Berkeley is particularly welcome as a supplement to the questionnaire-based data that the Greenes provide in their book, Inside the Top Colleges. Although an entire chapter of this book is devoted to the subject of alcohol and drugs on campus, the most useful information in the book—the charts on pp. 153-154 giving students’ perceptions of the direct and indirect (negative) influence of campus alcohol consumption—do not include the three public universities the Greenes covered.

On Friday, after I had spent some time online looking unsuccessfully for information on college drinking at public universities as compared to private colleges and universities, I came, quite by chance, across an article in the Daily Cal (which I almost never read) that someone had left behind in an office here in Berkeley where I live, which provided some current data on student drinking at Cal. (Strange how this sort of thing happens.) It was written by a Karen Hughes, who coordinates something called the PartySafe@Cal program. Returning home, I found the article online.

Hughes’ article reflects a current trend in alcohol abuse prevention at the nation’s campuses. Many are convinced that a significant factor in alcohol abuse in college is the peer pressure that arises from student misperceptions (overestimations) of the amount of drinking that other students do and that many students might feel is therefore in some sense expected of them. (This is often called the “social norms” approach to reducing alcohol and drug abuse, and it seems to be reasonably effective.) Hughes, therefore, although she takes care not to minimize the problem, is concerned to show students that there is far less student drinking at Cal than most of them think. She is able to cite a study—the Fall 2007 California Safer Universities Study—which found that 17 percent of Cal students binge drink. This compares to the student perception on campus that 37 percent do. Interestingly, the 37 percent estimate is close to the consistently reported national average at 4-year colleges in the U.S. of approximately 40 percent.

Hughes is right, then, to claim that Berkeley’s student binge drinking rate is lower than the national average. In fact, the reported findings indicate that it is significantly lower—a difference of about 23 percent.

Race, Racial Diversity, and College Drinking

Caution is in order here, however, because the studies may not be factoring in all of the possible confounding variables. One variable that needs to be factored in is race and ethnicity. This is an important variable to consider because binge drinking does vary by race and ethnicity. In one multicampus survey by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, white non-Hispanic students reported the highest percentage of binge drinking in a 2-week period (43.8 percent), followed by Native American (40.6 percent), Hispanic (31.3 percent), Asian (22.7 percent), and black non-Hispanic (22.5 percent) students. This pattern of binge drinking differences among ethnic groups is also seen in high school students.

It is important to keep these campus racial and ethnic drinking patterns in mind when comparing different kinds of institutions of higher education. It is possible that community colleges, which have higher percentages of blacks and Hispanics, and correspondingly lower percentages of whites, have lower reported rates of binge drinking by students at least in part because of the racial composition of the student bodies. Similarly, it is important to keep in mind that Asian students have the second lowest self-reported rate of binge drinking in the NIAAA study. At UC Berkeley, 40 percent of the student body is Asian.

Does the College Experience in the U.S. Drive Students to Drink?

Statistics comparing binge drinking by high school graduates who do and do not go to college are also available.One recent study that compared the self-reported drinking behaviors of students attending and not attending college in the 18-21 age group, which was based on the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 Round 4 data set, found that 43.7 percent of college students and 34.5 percent of non-college going students reported binge drinking on at least one occasion in the past sixty days. This finding generally agrees with those of previous studies that college students have a higher prevalence of binge drinking than their same-age non-student counterparts.

This in itself, however, does not answer the question whether college is itself a determinant of binge drinking, because it does not tell us whether the higher drinking rates of college students is due to some aspect or aspects of their college experience, or whether colleges simply attract individuals who are more likely to drink. Fortunately, there is longitudinal data that bears directly on this question, too. That data supports the view that college itself, for whatever reason, is associated with higher rates of excessive alcohol consumption.

Aaron M. White, of the Duke University Medical Center, summarizes the data on this question as follows:

Interestingly, if one looks at the drinking levels of high school students, those bound for college tend to drink less while in high school, but then quickly begin to out-drink their non-college peers once arriving at college. Alcohol use then tapers off again once college students graduate. In other words, there really seems to be something about the college environment that promotes, or at least supports, higher than normal levels of alcohol consumption. The figure below, a modified version of a slide from the NIAAA College Drinking website, illustrates the change in drinking levels over time for college students and their non-college peers.

Researchers have identified some of the environmental and institutional variables in college that are correlated with the excessive consumption of alcohol. Much of this data comes from the CORE Institute database, as it provides information about institutions and also groups respondents by institution. The NIAA web site identifies some of the important correlates in the CORE studies as follows: 

Differences in drinking levels were found for Core Survey respondents based on whether they lived in on- or off campus housing (Presley et al., 1996a). The average number of drinks per week and the number of heavy episodic drinking episodes were all higher for on-campus residents as compared with off-campus residents, and students with the highest levels of consumption and heavy episodic drinking episodes were those who lived in a fraternity or sorority house (Presley et al., 1993b). Research from the Core Institute has shown that size of institution is generally associated with quantity of alcohol consumed, with students at smaller schools consuming greater amounts of alcohol on an average weekly basis than students at larger schools (Presley et al., 1993a, 1995, 1996a,b). It has also been consistently shown that students at schools in the Northeast section of the United States consume more alcohol and have higher episodic drinking rates than students in other sections of the country, with the North Central region not far behind (Presley et al., 1993a, 1995, 1996a,b).

College drinking is a global issue, according to the NIAA site. (See "What Colleges Need to Know Now,” p. 7.) Other countries, particularly those in Europe and South America, as well as Australia and New Zealand, report problems with college drinking on a par with those of North America. Important variables connected with alcohol abuse internationally include male gender, higher socioeconomic status, and higher family education.

Looking for the Reasons

One could have predicted a higher incidence of binge drinking in college simply because drinking has historically been a part of college culture—one might almost say, an essential part of its ethos and mystique. As the historian of college life, Helen Horowitz, has documented in her important book Campus Life (1987), undergraduate college culture, going back to the 19th century at least, was largely the creation of the fraternities, and drinking has been very much a part of fraternity culture. F. Scott Fitzgerald painted an indelible picture of this college culture as it had developed in Princeton by the 1920s. College life at Princeton was tonier than it has been at other colleges and universities in America, but a culture built around the consumption of alcohol has historically been a major part of the college scene almost everywhere.

The Greek system continues to be the major locus of college drinking. The Harvard School of Public Health found that eighty-six percent of fraternity residents and 80 percent of sorority women are binge drinkers (five or more drinks in one sitting at least once in the two weeks before the survey was done). This compares with 45 percent of men not affiliated with fraternities and 36 percent of women. Among college students who are members of a fraternity but not residents of a house, the number of binge drinkers is also higher than average—71 percent for men and 58 percent for women.

The Greek system is one of the major issues in American higher education today, and the heavy drinking associated with it is one of the principal reasons. However, excessive college drinking, as the above statistics show, is hardly confined to fraternities and sororities. Even outside the Greeks, 45 percent of college men and 36 percent of college women binge drink.

Blaming college drinking just on the Greeks is therefore a mistake. Moreover, it is important to understand that the culture of college drinking (if one is to call it that) has been changing, and that the changes have affected fraternities and sororities as well.

Changes in the nature of college drinking have been noted by many observers of the campus scene. One of closest observers has been Barrett Seaman, the author of Binge, who has recently written about the Amethyst Initiative in an article that appeared last week in Minding the Campus.

Seaman, an alum of Hamilton, became a trustee of that college when he was still working as a White House correspondent for Time Magazine. He got engaged in the issue of binge drinking at Hamilton as a trustee, and partly as a result of his concern and involvement in that issue was a major player in shutting down the Greek system at Hamilton College. After taking an early retirement from Time, Seaman spent much of his time, with the permission of their college administrations and students, living in dorms and coops at some of the top colleges across North America: Harvard, Dartmouth, Middlebury, Hamilton, the University of Virginia, Duke, Indiana University-Bloomington, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of California-Berkeley, Stanford, Pomona, and Canada's McGill University.

Seaman acknowledges that there was a lot of drinking at Hamilton when he was a student there in the 1960s, but he cannot remember anything like the frequent OD-ing on alcohol, sometimes involving hospitalization, that he observed during the two years that he spent visiting and living on college campuses. He also acknowledges that the social function of drinking is often the same now as it was then. Then as now, as he puts it, “people drink to break the ice, to oil the engines of sociability, to enhance confidence, and to stifle inhibitions.” But these days, that is not all of it, according to Seaman. Something else is going on that has something to do with a larger social malaise. As he puts it, students at the elite colleges he visited seem to feel and act as though the ground is giving way from under them; and he points to the well-known and widely cited statistic that over 25% of college students are now on psychotropic medications.

Many students are faced with mounting debts that they incur in financing their college education. They have serious concerns about globalization, and middle- and upper middle class fears of downward mobility. The picture that Seaman, the Greenes, and many others have painted of the current college-going cohort is very far removed from the picture of the ivory tower as it seems to still exist in the popular imagination. That picture, of an unpressured, pretty idyllic four years, spent in the company of books and similarly unpressured peers, doesn’t represent reality any more, if it ever did. 

Looking at the Small, Private, Expensive Elite Residential College/University: Social, Academic, and Financial Factors

We have noted a number of variables that are associated with excessive drinking in college: the size of the student body (smaller schools having higher rates), higher socioeconomic status, higher family education, and a high rate of residency on campus. Together, these variables point in a certain direction: towards the 4-year, elite, expensive, and (often) highly selective residential private college.

The discussion in the previous section of this paper is surely relevant here as well. Since stress, anxiety, depression, and other psychological and clinical problems are strongly correlated with alcohol and substance abuse in the general population, it is not surprising that they are factors in student alcohol abuse as well. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (p. vii), studies show that there are actually two dominant drinking patterns among college students. One is drinking related to "impulsivity, disinhibition, and sensation-seeking" (the pattern traditionally associated with college drinking). The other is drinking to manage negative emotional states, such as depression. As Richard D. Kadison, the head of Harvard’s mental health service, has put it, students do not drink to excess only to “party”: many are doing so because they are distressed, and drinking "numbs their pain” (p. 112).

Nothing that I have yet seen has looked at whether the high and rapidly increasing incidence of mental health issues in the elite college-going population has anything to do with the high level of college binge drinking there. But my intuition is that binge drinking might be particularly acute at these colleges, due to a combination of social, academic, and financial factors. There are mounting pressures, coming from the general society outside the university, that affect all college students. But many of the social, financial, and academic factors that are or are likely to be correlated with campus drinking are concentrated at the small, private, elite, high-cost residential colleges. Everything there is more intense.

There is a caveat to enter here. The case I have been making in this section is essentially inferential. It is based on three kinds of considerations. One is the evidence, already available, that excessive consumption of alcohol in college is associated with smaller schools with high rates of on-campus residency (U.S. data), and with higher socioeconomic status, and higher family education (global data). Another is the observational data of the incidence of high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression at elite private colleges in the U.S., coupled with the large mass of evidence that mental health issues of this kind are associated with alcohol and other kinds of substance abuse. This set of findings is not in itself evidence that binge drinking is worse at small, private, elite, and expensive residential colleges, but it does strongly point in the direction of a hypothesis and program for future research. There might, in fact, be environmental or institutional variables associated with these colleges and universities that have not been considered that are countervailing and neutralize the factors that have been enumerated here. When the statistics are finally in, it is possible that such institutions will actually fare better than other kinds of four-year colleges. But we should find out.

Obviously, binge drinking is only one factor in assessing a college or university. The suggestion that a number of factors indicate that binge drinking might be an especially acute problem at the nation’s leading private elite colleges is not an argument, in itself, for avoiding them in favor of other kinds of institutions. I myself do not share the skepticism that many feel about the value and quality of education at these institutions. I am simply suggesting that it is one hypothesis that researchers in the field should consider and investigate. If the hypothesis does turn out some day to be true, maybe it won’t be so surprising after all. Perhaps being subject to the stressors that are often associated with binge drinking is just the expected price that many students, at least, will have to pay for being at the top of a very competitive and increasingly expensive heap.

Academics and Play

One of the most striking and important aspects of undergraduate culture in the United States is its strength and historical persistence. An equally striking and important fact is how divorced it has been and continues to be from the curricular sector of campus life.

In his Coming of Age in New Jersey: College and American Culture (1989), the cultural anthropologist Michael Moffatt wrote about college life at Rutgers College, basing his observations on a short three-week period as an undercover participant-observer in residence halls there, and a longer period of time, extending over a period of several years, as a participant-observer after he had identified himself to students in the residence halls as a faculty member at Rutgers.

According to Moffatt, students at Rutgers believed that the memorable part of their college experience would prove to be the social life with their peers and the fun associated with it. The rest of their college experience, the students felt, was pretty humdrum and utilitarian, and would prove to be much less memorable. Academics was viewed by the overwhelming majority of students as a necessary rite of passage that was needed to move on to a successful adulthood in modern American society, and nothing more. Moffatt also found (p. 124) that drinking was a quintessential part of college culture at Rutgers. He also observed: “Drinking was really about partying, and partying was really about sexuality. And sexuality was arguably at the heart of the pleasure-complex that was college life as the students understood it in the 1980s."

More recently, another cultural anthropologist, Cathy Small (alias Rebekah Nathan) spent an entire year living as an undercover faculty observer-participant in the dorms at the university where she had taught for years, Northern Arizona U. In her recent work, My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (2005), she has a good deal to say about the fun and spontaneity that is central to undergraduate culture as she observed it first-hand. Like Moffatt a decade and more before her at Rutgers College, Small noted that the college culture at NAU that is built around fun and spontaneity has virtually nothing to do with either intellectual life or formal instruction (p. 103).

The NIAAA (Final Panel 2, p. viii-ix) has offered a number of recommendations for reducing heavy drinking on campus. As a practical matter, the easier a recommendation is to implement the better. If one were to make a wish list, however, one would like to include as recommendations some fundamental reforms in the undergraduate culture itself—indeed, some fundamental reforms in how the current society understands culture and education—even if one is at a loss to say how those lofty goals are to be achieved. This will likely be true of any reform that aims at preserving and fostering the idea that education is a self-justifying activity, rather than just a means to some utilitarian end.

One of the important ends of education is to develop in students an appreciation of the human mind at work, and of its grandeur when it is working at its best. But in view of the participant-observations of Moffatt, Small, and others, something else might be important as well. Perhaps we need to introduce into the discussion here the Dutch cultural historian J. Huizinga, who emphasized in his Homo Ludens (1938) the importance, not just of play in culture, but the play of culture, or perhaps even more precisely, culture as play. As Huizinga emphasized, the essence of play is not frivolity; indeed, the culturally valuable forms of play are both serious and fun at one and the same time. Those who study American higher education and who care deeply about its fate should consider the possibility that in order to preserve the idea of a university, it is necessary to preserve and nurture the idea of culture and education as play, and to consider the possibility that the absence of playfulness in higher education has something to do with the high incidence of alcohol and drug abuse on the nation’s campuses.

The same social and financial pressures that are correlated with alcohol abuse are likely diminishing playfulness in Huizinga's high cultural sense in the classroom. Introducing that sense of playfulness there might help to integrate the curriculum with other aspects of college life, offering an alternative to the traditional drinking culture, as well as some relief for students who are drinking to manage negative emotional states. More fundamentally, it is worth keeping such a goal in mind—even though it is admittedly difficult to achieve—because a campus environment in which students take courses only for careerist reasons, and find fun and enjoyment in college only in horseplay and hard drinking, is corrosive to the academic tradition itself. No genuine university or intellectual culture can really flourish in that kind of environment.

When Huizinga wrote about playfulness and culture, he was mostly concerned with the arts and with the liberal arts, but playfulness, which can arise in any activity that is self-justifying, applies to math and the sciences as well, as the example of Richard Feynman, perhaps, shows the best. It might, of course, be objected that Feynman is a special case. Maybe so, but that doesn't mean that it is either unimportant or impossible to impart some sense of playfulness in the typical classroom, even if the students there will never come close to the stratospheric reaches of a Feynman.

When education is at its best, students have fun in their classes. Unfortunately, many of the pressures impinging on college life these days make this difficult. Careerism, concern about loans and college debts, part-time employment to help pay the bills and slow down the accumulation of debt, all of which are on the increase, make the achievement of playfulness as an integral and important part of the educational experience harder and harder to achieve, and ultimately maybe even impossible to achieve.

Of course, working at a job or at one’s own business should be fun too, at least ideally, and often it isn’t. But then at work one is at least getting paid for doing something. In the classroom, one is not. That is why real education, at its best, needs a certain kind of cultural environment in order to survive and prosper. That kind of cultural environment has arguably never been strongly supported by any stratum or class of American society. But whatever there was of it in the past, seems now to be in decline, due primarily to social and economic pressures from outside the university. Perhaps this has something to do with the high rate of alcohol abuse on the nation’s campuses. After all, one might very well expect binge drinking to be a problem if students feel obliged to take courses where they aren’t even having fun while racking up large, onerous financial debts in the process.

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Image: Pixabay, Public Domain

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