Two new initiatives are bringing college leaders and experts together to tackle the seemingly intractable problem of college high-risk drinking.
Close to 40 percent of college students in the United States engage in binge drinking, and that number has remained virtually unchanged for decades. Almost 2,000 college students in the U.S. die each year from alcohol-related injuries. An estimated 600,000 students are injured while under the influence, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
One new initiative to address the problem, the Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking, includes 32 institutions, and is led by Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim. The group will use comprehensive evaluation and measurement techniques to identify and implement the most effective ways to confront college drinking and lessen its harmful effects.
The second initiative is the NIAAA’s Presidents Working Group, a group of college presidents who will advise the institute. The group was created to bring national attention to college drinking, and to make recommendations to college administrators. It is co-chaired by Dartmouth’s Dr. Kim, and Dr. Robert Carothers, immediate past president of the University of Rhode Island. The group held its kickoff meeting in May.
These initiatives are the latest attempts to curb college drinking. In 2008, more than 130 college and university presidents signed onto the Amethyst Initiative, which advocates lowering the national drinking age from 21 to 18. In April 2002, NIAAA released a series of reports from its Task Force on College Drinking. The Task Force found that successful interventions occur at three levels: reaching individual students, the student body as a whole and the greater college community. The Task Force also grouped commonly used intervention strategies into four tiers, from most to least effective.
Learning From One Another
The Learning Collaborative is designed to let participants implement changes quickly, and to determine which methods are most effective in their institutions. The collaborative will develop measures to track the progress of the effort, and schools will share data. Teams of students, faculty and administrators from each school are meeting three times over the course of a year. The first meeting took place in June.
The Presidents Working Group is building on the work of our Task Force on College Drinking’s earlier work, explains Vivian B. Faden, PhD, Director of the Office of Science Policy and Communications, and Associate Director for Behavioral Research at NIAAA. “A lot of what we did with our first initiative was to get a sense of the extent of the problem, and to gain a deeper understanding of it,” she adds.
This new initiative aims to focus on better communication with college presidents, and to understand what research is still needed on how to best implement programs. “In the last 10 years we’ve learned a good deal more about what is likely to be successful,” she says. “We’ve made progress, but college drinking is still a big problem and we need to do more. Now we’re focusing more on how to address barriers to implementation.”
While the Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking is a separate initiative, Dr. Faden notes the NIAAA group is working with the collaborative.
Addressing Drinkers Along the Continuum
One of the experts who spoke at the NIAAA meeting in May was Robert F. Saltz, PhD, Senior Scientist at the Prevention Research Center in Berkeley, CA. He observes that more colleges are admitting that drinking is a problem, and are starting to try a mix of strategies to address it.
“One of the challenges for prevention is that there is a continuum, with light and moderate drinkers at one end, and heavy drinkers at the other, and both groups need different strategies,” he shares.
He conducted a five-year study with 14 public universities in California, called the Safer California University study. The schools were paired up based on the level of drinking indicated in annual surveys of 500 students from each campus. In each pair, one school implemented a series of drinking interventions, and the other school, which served as a control group, did not.
Prevention interventions included enforcing laws against selling alcohol to minors, driving-under-the-influence checkpoints, nuisance party enforcement operations, asking campus police to cite hosts of parties when they respond to complaints of loud parties, and use of campus and local media to increase the visibility of these strategies.
The study found significant reductions in the incidence and likelihood of intoxication at off-campus parties and bars/restaurants at universities implementing the interventions, compared with the control universities. “We knew most drinking was done in off-campus parties, in apartments or fraternities, so that was our target,” Dr. Saltz says. “We found the biggest effects on the campuses that had the most intensive implementation.”
The study also found that reducing drinking at off-campus parties did not result in more drinking at bars and restaurants or at any other settings. He explains, “People will say, without having evidence, that if you reduce drinking in one place, you’ll just chase the problem somewhere else. We were the first to show that wasn’t the case.”
The members of the Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking are:
Acadia University (Nova Scotia), Boston University, Brown University (RI), Bucknell University (PA), Colgate University (NY), Cornell University (NY), Dartmouth College (NH), DePauw University (IN), Duke University (NC), Frostburg State University (MD), Lehigh University (PA), Lincoln College Partnership (NE), Northwestern University (IL), Ohio University, Princeton University (NJ), Purdue University (IN), Sewanee: The University of the South (TN), Southern Methodist University (TX), Stanford University (CA), Stony Brook University (NY), University of Maryland Baltimore County, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, University of Minnesota, University of New Hampshire, University of Rhode Island, University of Vermont, University of Wyoming, Vanderbilt University (TN), Washington University in St. Louis, Wellesley College (MA), Wesleyan University (CT) and Yale University (CT).
Members of the NIAAA Presidents Working Group represent the following universities:
University of Wyoming, Lehigh University (PA), Frostburg State University (MD), Ohio University, University of Pittsburgh, University of South Carolina, the University of California system, Cornell University, Stony Brook University (NY) and Dartmouth College (NH).