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Commentary: Drinking and the College Experience


Finally, in just a few short weeks, I’ll be heading off to college. My family and neighbors are eager to give me advice and well wishes. But I’m beginning to notice that those conversations have become pretty biased. “You’re going to what college? I heard the parties are great there!” or “You have Econ 101 on a Friday morning? I guess you’re going to be too hung over for that!”

Huh? Is that all I should be looking forward to at college, drinking and being hung over? What about the other experiences, the exciting professors, the new roommates and friends, the city-life? Adults, including many of my friends’ parents, are all but encouraging me to drink while underage, even though it’s illegal and potentially harmful. Many adults – even those who might prohibit their kid from drinking or using drugs in high school – are, dare I say, supportive of underage alcohol consumption for college students.

“It’s part of the college experience” and “You’ve got to get it out of your system,” they say. I’ve heard, “Well, everybody drinks at college.”

As a student who is transitioning from high school to college, I have to admit, the messages are confusing. For four years of high school, most adults were against teen drinking. They would ground us, punish us, deactivate our cell phones and take away our car keys if they suspected kids were drinking. But after graduation, many adults did a complete 180. The adults I know now tell me that drinking is important for the “college experience.”

But wait. What happened in the past two months that changed drinking from the eighth deadly sin to a societal norm or rite of passage?

Telling recent high school graduates that all college kids drink is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kids like me, who are transitioning from high school to college, know virtually nothing about the college experience. Living in a dorm, sharing a room, having a meal plan – all of this is very new to us. We don’t know what to expect. But because the idea that college kids binge drink is so well ingrained in our culture, kids my age expect that alcohol will be unavoidable on campus.

Why don’t we encourage something else instead? College today costs tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the experience is supposed to be both academically enlightening and personally fulfilling. Why are we preparing kids to drink instead of preparing them to study? Why don’t parents tell us about classes instead of parties?

If you were to ask a parent why they talk so positively about drinking to college kids, I bet most sensible adults would say they were just making small talk. They weren’t trying to encourage kids to hurt themselves or commit a crime. But from the perspective of a teenager, that doesn’t matter. Whether adults understand the impact of their words or not, conversations about the “normalness” of drinking in college are propagating an illegal and harmful social norm among young people.

Teenagers, whether they’re 13, 15 or 19, are trying to define who they are and who they should be. You wouldn’t tell a 13-year-old that drinking is “normal” – the same should be true for an 18- or 19-year-old.

Why is this such an important problem to consider? Because we’re dealing with a vulnerable population. We know that kids in any transition period are more likely to experiment, and that’s part of the reason why drinking in college is so abundant. It’s only natural – if you’re headed off to somewhere new, you have the opportunity to redefine yourself. But a college freshman shouldn’t walk into his/her first class thinking he/she has to drink – or worse, be drunk – just to “fit in” in this new college environment.

Drinking in college isn’t just a problem because it’s illegal. Drinking in college causes real and sometimes long-lasting effects for some kids. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking in college causes nearly 2,000 deaths, 700,000 cases of assault and 25 percent of poor academic performance each year. The most startling statistic is that more than 150,000 kids each year develop an alcohol-related health problem. And those problems don’t wear off when the party is over or even at graduation.

I’m heading off for college in just a few days. I’m excited to meet new people, live in a dorm room and start classes. And in the back of my mind I know, of course, that there will be alcohol on campus and there will be alcohol in many situations I encounter. But I’m content knowing that I have choice. I can choose not to make alcohol a part of my college experience. I hope parents and adults everywhere will give new college freshman the freedom to make that same choice.

Theodore Caputi

Theodore Caputiphoto

Theodore Caputi is a student at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. While in high school, he founded and directed a non-profit organization called the Student Leader Union, which fosters student leadership and community engagement. He is currently a policy intern at the Treatment Research Institute, where he also serves as a member of the Institutional Review Board.

18 Responses to this article

  1. Avatar of Ayumi
    Ayumi / November 10, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree. I’m 21 years old now amd after an unwitting encounter with alcohol (Nyquil. Of l the things.) I actually refuse to drink even though I am of a legal age to do so.
    One thing I see the need to tell graduating high school students about is working. I graduated from college amd am currently employed so I cannot drink. We need to help these youth realize that they cannot afford to be drinking umderage. Let’s work to make employment part of the college experience, not drinking.

  2. Avatar of JG
    JG / August 28, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    As not only a prevention specialist but the mother of a sophmore in college (who did not drink her first year) I would just like to say HURRAY! This was a well thought out and written article. I too have been amazed by parents not only expecting but encouraging their kids to drink. My daughter had realistic expectations of college and is often surrounded by alcohol usage both underage and of age. She has also been told a ton of times how much she is respected for sticking to her beliefs. Truthfully she said saying no in college has been easier than high school. I think as parents we need to give realistic images but also keep in mind that we want to encourage our kids to make responsible choices. We don’t lose our influence when they go to college. That’s a time when they most need our guidance and support.

  3. Avatar of Nancy Ward
    Nancy Ward / August 15, 2013 at 8:25 pm

    I have a grandson who is going away to college next week. He has had two problems with alcohol in high school. Needless to say I am concerned…

    All I say to him is to keep focused, look for the focused students to hang out with and never forget WHY you are enrolled in this University – to get an education!

  4. Barbara Mazer / August 10, 2013 at 8:38 pm

    Theodore, you express an enlightened point of view and give me hope. I am a drug counselor and I feel for the parents who spend fortunes for college and for treatment and often have nothing to show for it.
    The culture has gone crazy and we need clear , honest thinking in our society . Thank you.

  5. Avatar of Tom Celona
    Tom Celona / August 10, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    I think the thing is that most parents see college as an important milestone wherein you become a more responsible adult and, as such, should be privy to less constraints. Additionally, most developed countries have a legal drinking age of 18 (roughly the age of a college freshman) and many adults in the US believe that this is a proper age to allow for such an activity (though certainly still the minority). Ultimately, I don’t think the important issue is whether one drinks at 18 or not, but whether someone can be a responsible drinker at the age. Generally, things seem to work out well for most European countries (who usually have a legal drinking age of 18). The problem in the US is that we have a culture that glorifies getting drunk. I don’t expect anyone to take on the massive task of changing our culture, but one should recognize its existence and do their best not to be influenced by it.

  6. Avatar of Anna K
    Anna K / August 9, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    This is a very well-articulated piece. You effectively highlight one of the biggest social issues facing America’s youth.

  7. Avatar of Tim
    Tim / August 9, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    Most of what I read in this blog I agree with, but I feel that your assertion that most parents push/force alcohol on their kids as part of the “college experience” is a little much. My parents are relatively dispassionate about the subject and know that I will most likely encounter an alcohol-related situation, but they are not suggesting I try it or use it because I’m in college.

  8. Avatar of Pat
    Pat / August 9, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    Ah, the lecture from the uninitiated. Alcohol IS unavoidable for anybody who intends to be social in their college experience. Whether you consume it or not is up to you, but you WILL be exposed to it. Do you think discouragement from adults who no longer have any supervisory role over you would actually be in any way discouraging? If you’re going to give paternalizing advice to an inbound college student, it should be about responsible alcohol use, not abstinence. Keeping people blind to what awaits them is a recipe for the negative consequences you outlined.
    The reason that alcohol use is considered “normal” among 19 year olds is exactly because it is normal, for better or worse.
    Put your effort into being a role model of responsibility, not of moralizing, and perhaps you could actually make a difference.

  9. Avatar of Daniel Gift
    Daniel Gift / August 9, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    Aha, someone has finally put into words that strange sense of uncomfortable social irony that I’ve felt with regards to youth and drinking! A well-worded piece; I especially like the part about the self-fulfilling prophecy. As another high school graduate about to enter the college world, I couldn’t agree more.

  10. Avatar of Ghazala Long
    Ghazala Long / August 9, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    A brilliant commentary about our parenting. Sometimes we forget how well our children listen to what we say.

  11. Avatar of CGK
    CGK / August 9, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    I agree that drinking in college may be seen as a rite of passage. That image is also driven by American culture and media. College drinking as a subsection of student culture on campuses is universally recognized in movies, books, songs, etc.
    How could Universities change that perception?

  12. Hiawatha Bouldin / August 9, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    I would so much appreciate you sending these numbers of assaults and negative mishaps out to our mainstream public. I am retired military and I also worked in procuring (recruiting) candidates for the U.S. Air Force (for over 12 years). As a prevention specialist that works with substance abuse prevention, I know for as fact that civilians (college students) have numbers that nearly triple the military numbers of sexual assaults cases. (97,000 v 26,000 for military). Why aren’t we publicizing this? Those 6 to 700,000 other assaults that occur on our college campuses are also civilians and not military members. There is one problem however. We have to find our candidates from this pools of people for our military. Anyone else see the picture. Let’s begin to look at the real issue. Admiting that we are not trying to change this “social norm”. That we are being controlled by the industry and that we are losing the battle!

  13. steve castleman / August 9, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    Kids, teens and adults all need to be better educated about how drugs, including alcohol, manipulate the brain and skew brain growth in key motivational systems well into one’s 20s.

    For a not-for-profit website that discusses the science of substance use and abuse in accessible English (how alcohol and drugs work in the brain; how addiction develops; why addiction is a chronic, progressive brain disease; what parts of the brain malfunction as a result of substance abuse; how that malfunction skews decision-making and motivation, resulting in addict behaviors; why some get addicted while others don’t; how treatment works; how well treatment works; why relapse is common; what family and friends can do; etc.) please click on.

  14. Avatar of Brenda Conlan
    Brenda Conlan / August 9, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Amen, Theodore! You are more mature than many of the adults you mention in your piece!

  15. Sherry Callear / August 9, 2013 at 11:41 am

    As a mother of a child going off to college this fall myself, I am so proud of this young man who has taken a stand and decided NOT to include alcohol in his college experience. His assertions about the irony of adults OK’ing this “rite of passage” is perfect.

  16. Avatar of Parent
    Parent / August 15, 2013 at 8:44 pm

    Pat – you embody the “everyone’s doing it – it’s unavoidable mentality” that SOME people have. The truth is – Everyone is NOT doing it. Many are – but others are not. It’s a myth perpetuated by those who do drink or do drugs in college and the parents who feel they can’t do anything about it. It’s fine to make sure your kid knows how to drink without having to be rushed to the hospital with alcohol poisoning, but better yet, you can also make it clear that drinking (or doing drugs) doesn’t HAVE to be part of the college experience. After all, it’s illegal and it leads to higher risk of alcoholism in the future. SMART and CONFIDENT kids with the capacity to think through consequences will listen. Throwing in the towel and buying the kid a shot glass and beer mug for his dorm room is resignation of your parental duties. Sure there’s drinking in college – there’s also cheating, prejudice, casual sex, sloth, profligate spending, streaking, gluttony, sleeplessness, and excessive video game playing (ok – I’m being a bit cheeky here, but you get the point). My kids know where I stand on these things. Someone has to be the parent.

  17. Pat / August 25, 2013 at 11:04 am

    You’ll notice that I didn’t say everybody will drink, and it is ridiculous to say that you don’t have a choice in the matter.
    It is also ridiculous to tie intelligence and confidence into the decision to not drink due to the risks. Clearly, you lack understanding of the decision making process of an intelligent teenager. Ones that are smart and confident are LESS likely to listen to authoritative warnings about the risks of their behavior. But I’m sure it’s easier for you to follow the myth of the “good kid” and have a black and white world view that leaves children utterly unprepared for the real world.
    Also, re-read what I said. It WILL be part of the college experience, whether you drink or not. The fact is that most people will drink in college. That’s not a myth. Nobody said “everybody” will.
    I’m sure it brings you some comfort to believe your children will be in the minority. Hopefully they are smart enough to overcome the obstacles you’ve placed by not adequately preparing them.

  18. Parent / September 16, 2013 at 4:27 pm

    Your notions are not based upon any evidence or research. The idea that “smart” = “rebellious” is as ridiculous as the notion that kids who act out in school only do so because they are so smart they are bored. These unsubstantiated myths are what compel misguided parents to give their children the “OK” to drink and tolerate their goofing off in school. The truth is the most successful students (with some exceptions) are ones who see beyond immediate gratification and understand the (down the road) consequences of their behavior. Do many of them drink – sure. Do all of them drink? No. Should we take our teens out drinking to “prepare them?” There is no basis in the research for this. The longer people put off drinking, the less likely that alcohol will be a problem for them in the future. Do your homework.

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