Colleges go on offense against binge drinking

 
Image courtesy of Outside The Classroom, Inc.
More than 200 universities require incoming freshmen to take AlcoholEdu, an online course that informs students about drinking's impact on the mind and body, before enrolling in school.
To many college students, binge drinking and everything that goes with it - beer pong, keg stands and $1 shots - are a rite of passage, as integral a part of the college experience as midterms and all-nighters. 
  
But to college administrators, drinking too much is a hazard to students' health and safety. As a result, officials are addressing excessive drinking with tactics such as moving classes to Friday to prevent "Thirsty Thursdays," convincing nearby communities to limit drink specials like ladies' night, and requiring incoming students to take online classes about alcohol use.
"The academic and social consequences are just very high, to say nothing of the value of human life," said University of Mississippi spokesman Mitchell Diggs, who listed a litany of potential ailments that go along with binge drinking: crime, falling grades and death.

Alcohol abuse by college students is a rampant problem. A March study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reported that 3.8 million full-time college students, or 49 percent, regularly abuse drugs or binge drink, which is defined as five or more drinks at a time for men, and four or more drinks for women.

Even the federal government is worried. In March, the U.S. surgeon general issued the office's first call to action to stem underage drinking, with recommendations for parents, schools, colleges, communities, governments and even the alcohol industry on how to stop the abuse. The surgeon general asked colleges to end alcohol advertising in campus newspapers, provide more alcohol-free late-night events, and shift more classes to Friday to "shorten the elongated weekend" that has students binge drinking by Thursday night. 

The University of Iowa - ranked 12 th on the Princeton Review's list of top party schools - is answering that particular call. Starting in the fall of 2008, the school will move more classes to Friday.
  
The move was discussed for years, but the decision was cemented with the July release of a University of Missouri study that found students with Friday morning classes are less likely to over-imbibe on Thursday. This spring, the University of Iowa averaged 2,438 classes daily Monday through Thursday but had only 1,404 classes on Friday.
  
Associate Provost Tom Rocklin said more Friday classes are just one strategy in the fight against binge drinking. "There is no single thing that will make a dramatic change," he said. Friday classes aren't "going to make binge drinking go away. But it's one thing that will help the problem, so it's worth doing."
  
Another tactic to cut extreme intoxication looks at advertising. Two years ago, the California State University (CSU) system put tighter controls on alcohol advertising, such as banning promotion on campus of two-for-one drink specials. This summer CSU-Fullerton hired a student to take down unauthorized campus fliers that advertise drink specials.
  
Several colleges also sponsor alcohol-free events, such as Late Knights at the University of Central Florida, Wildcat WILD Nights at the University of Kentucky, and Friday Night Live events at the University of Cincinnati.

But if incentives don't work, there is always punishment. In recent years, more schools have instituted a two- or three-strikes policy to punish students for public drunkenness or possession of alcohol by a minor. The final strike can result in a semester's suspension. The University of Mississippi began a two-strikes policy in November, with five suspensions so far.

"Ole Miss," currently No. 2 on Princeton Review's party-school list, had long discussed curbing alcohol abuse. But the school began its crackdown in earnest when a campus officer, Robert Langley, died in October after pulling over a car driven by a student with alcohol, cocaine and marijuana in his system; the student took off, dragging Langley to his death.
 
Mississippi also joined more than 200 colleges in requiring that incoming students take a three-hour online AlcoholEdu course, which surveys students on their drinking habits and explains alcohol's impact on the mind and body. At Ole Miss, athletes and fraternity and sorority members also have to take the course.
  
But experts say universities' attempts to cut binge drinking also must involve local communities. The American Medical Association (AMA) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which provides grants to improve health and health care, are nearly finished with a decade-long experiment at 10 universities to cut student drinking by encouraging partnerships with their communities.
  
"When we first went in, communities were angry with universities, as if universities had landed from outer space and brought all these drinking students with them," said Richard Yoast, the director of the project. Colleges and communities "realized they needed to work together. The finger-pointing really stopped."
  
Cities have taken steps such as requiring more training for bartenders, tightening penalties for bars caught serving minors, restricting liquor licenses and banning cheap drink specials, Yoast said.
  
The University of Wisconsin, one of the schools in the project, split costs with the city of Madison, Wis., to hire an alcohol policy coordinator. Last month, the Madison City Council approved the plan by former "bar czar" Joel Plant to limit the number of new bars allowed in downtown Madison, where there are already about 120 bars packed in less than one square mile.
  
In March 2006, Louisiana State University worked with the East Baton Rouge Metro Council to ban "all-you-can-drink" specials and deeply discounted drinks after 10 p.m.
 
This year, Utah became the 28th state to enact a law prohibiting happy hours or drink specials like unlimited drinks. Enforcement of these laws varies from state to state, however, and bars can get around regulations by offering, for example, an all-day drink special that's not specifically banned, instead of a happy hour.
 
The AMA also partnered with the Center for Science in the Public Interest to ask universities to ban print and broadcast ads for alcohol when promoting sporting events. Since the campaign began three years ago, 248 schools and two conferences, the Big South and the Ivy League, have signed on, including athletic powerhouses like the University of Florida and Ohio State. Last month, the Big 10 conference launched its own sports channel, BTN , which will not accept any alcohol advertising.

Although most of the action has been taken by college officials, states also have gotten tough on underage drinkers this year. South Carolina enacted a law that could take state-funded scholarships away from offenders.  Iowa and Nebraska have new statewide keg registration requirements to check the identification of keg buyers, and Oregon, Utah, and West Virginia enacted or tightened laws to suspend the driver's licenses of the underaged for alcohol-related offenses.

Comment on this story in the space below by registering with Stateline.org, or e-mail your feedback to our Letters to the editor section at letters@stateline.org .

Contact Pauline Vu at pvu@stateline.org .

See related story:
Underage drinking laws take aim at parents


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