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High-Risk Drinking in College: What We Know and What We Need To Learn

An Entrenched Problem

Alcohol use on college campuses is not a new problem; it has been documented in the United States for at least 50 years. However, recent concerns have centered on heavy episodic drinking, a potentially dangerous practice often termed “binge drinking,” and usually defined as consuming five drinks or more in a row for men and four drinks or more in a row for women. According to this definition, about two out of five college students have engaged in binge drinking in the past 2 weeks. An additional two out of five college students drink—but not to excess—while one in five does not use alcohol at all.

In recognition of the serious and sometimes fatal consequences of alcohol consumption among college students, the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health, established two panels of nongovernment experts to help the Institute develop a national research agenda to better address the problem. The panels included college presidents and administrators, well-known alcohol researchers, and students. The two panels are Contexts and Consequences (Panel 1) and Prevention and Treatment (Panel 2).

This report represents the work of the Panel on Contexts and Consequences and is based on 12 commissioned, peer-reviewed papers by experts in the field and extensive discussion among panel members and the authors of the papers. It focuses on what is known about drinking in college and its consequences and on gaps in knowledge that need further study. The report also places a special emphasis on heavy drinking, including binge drinking, because of its potentially serious consequences.

Because colleges vary widely in their drinking rates, it would be inaccurate to characterize all colleges as having an equally urgent drinking problem. But among college students who do drink heavily, the problem is serious: the two out of five students who engage in binge drinking risk a wide range of alcohol-related consequences, including grave injuries and death.

Student Alcohol Consumption: Multiple Influences

The Panel found that on many college campuses, heavy drinking is interwoven overtly or subtly throughout the culture of the institution. As a result, students perceive this drinking pattern as the social norm rather than as unhealthy and potentially destructive behavior. Research consistently shows that there is no one cause of excessive alcohol use by college students, and the Panel thought that it would be naive and misleading to adopt a simplistic view of, or approach to, this problem.

College student drinking is the product of many factors working together. Among them are:

  • Students’ value systems and personalities;
  • Students’ expectations regarding alcohol’s effects (whether good or bad);
  • Genetic predisposition, often reflected in a family history of alcoholism;
  • Roles and influence of family background and peers;
  • Social integration of drinking into college life;
  • Social context in which drinking takes place (e.g., on- or off-campus parties, on- or off-campus bars);
  • Marketing mechanisms such as reduced-price drink specials and promotional efforts;
  • Economic availability of alcohol, including its retail price and the amount of students’ disposable income;
  • Legal availability of alcohol;
  • Social and institutional structures, including law enforcement; and
  • Public policy.

Developmental processes: Drinking problems among college students are also closely tied to developmental processes. Binge drinking rates are lower at younger ages, increase in later adolescence, and drop off in the mid-twenties.

The college years are a time of transition, involving challenges and changes in identity, social relationships, and living arrangements. However, these transitions also affect noncollege peers, suggesting that what is often interpreted as a campus-based problem may be attributable, in part, to the broader social and biological processes that characterize late adolescence and early adulthood in general. Factors such as greater personal freedom and independence, greater involvement in social and dating relationships, and freedom from the responsibilities of marriage and family life appear to be intricately linked to greater alcohol involvement.

Elevated drinking levels: College drinking occurs at a stage in life when drinking levels are generally elevated. The age period from 19 to 24 is associated with the highest prevalence of periodic heavy alcohol consumption during the life span (Johnston et al., 2001b). Although, on average, college students may drink on fewer occasions than their noncollegiate peers, they drink heavily (e.g., five or more drinks in a sitting) on a more frequent basis than nonstudents, placing them at especially high risk for the consequences of heavy consumption.

Preexisting drinking problems: Because colleges and universities are the social institutions that help many youth make the transition from adolescence to adulthood, they often become the playing field on which the developmental problems of this life stage, including alcohol misuse, unfold. Panel members pointed out that the drinking patterns of some college students represent the continuation of behavior that began during high school or even earlier. When these problems emerge at age 18 or 19, they are labeled “college problems,” although they may actually be “high school” or “middle school problems.” Viewed from this perspective, while the college experience may serve to “identify” or, in some cases, amplify excessive drinking, it does not necessarily cause it.

Aspects of campus life supporting drinking: Research does, however, suggest that there are aspects of certain college environments that may support or facilitate drinking among students. These factors include commingling of students under the legal drinking age of 21 with those who can drink legally, substantial amounts of unstructured time, and student-oriented alcohol advertising.

College student drinkers: Research shows that:

  • Male college students tend to drink more than female college students;
  • White college students tend to drink more than their African-American and Hispanic peers;
  • Members of fraternities and sororities tend to drink more than students who do not participate in the Greek system;
  • College athletes tend to drink more than peers who are not involved with campus-based sports; and
  • As a group, college students are less likely to use drugs than their noncollege peers.

College students vary greatly in their use of alcohol and their beliefs about its positive and negative effects. Studies show that two major drinking patterns appear dominant among college students: (1) drinking related to impulsivity, disinhibition, and sensation-seeking; and (2) drinking to manage negative emotional states, such as depression.

Multiple Negative Consequences

The negative consequences of excessive drinking can be severe for both those college students who drink and those around them.

Personal consequences: Students who drink heavily may experience a range of personal consequences that include missing class, academic difficulties, dropping out of school, problems with friends, health problems, and unprotected or unwanted sex. Excessive use of alcohol can also increase the likelihood that students will engage in high-risk sex, behave aggressively, or perpetrate or experience sexual assault. These consequences are highlighted because they can have severe, long-term repercussions including contracting a sexually transmitted disease, becoming pregnant unintentionally, developing an arrest record, or living with the emotional devastation caused by rape.

Research clearly demonstrates that heavy alcohol use by college students is associated with high-risk sexual behavior. Alcohol impairs information processing and reasoning and heightens the salience of simple cues to action (such as sexual arousal) while blunting the more distal consequences of behavior (such as the risk of HIV infection). Students who drink excessively are two to three times more likely to have had multiple sexual partners in the past month than those who drink responsibly. Similarly, drinking on a first date is associated with a twofold to threefold increase in the probability of having sex on that date.

Data also show that alcohol and physical and sexual aggression are linked. Aggressive college students tend to drink more, but it may also be that heavier use increases the likelihood of aggression. At least 50 percent of college student sexual assaults are associated with alcohol use. Typically, both parties in such situations have been drinking when the sexual assault occurs. Alcohol-related sexual assault is underreported, primarily because of the misplaced shame and stigma that surround this violent and personal crime.

In addition, approximately one in three 18- to 24-year-olds admitted to emergency rooms for serious injuries is intoxicated. Heavy alcohol use is also associated with homicides, suicides, and drownings.

The link between excessive alcohol consumption and unsafe driving is well known. About one-half of all fatal traffic crashes among those aged 18 to 24 involve alcohol; many of those killed in this age group are college students. Alcohol can slow a driver’s reaction time, affect concentration, interfere with steering, and impair response to pedestrians and traffic signs and signals.

Secondhand effects: Noise and property damage, vomit, and unsightly litter are common byproducts of a night of binge drinking on campus. Some researchers term these consequences “secondhand effects,” because they are similar to the secondhand smoke from tobacco use (Wechsler et al., 1998). More than one-half of college administrators from schools with high levels of excessive drinking report problems with vandalism and property damage. In addition, students who drink excessively are more likely to physically or sexually assault other students.


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Historical document
Last reviewed: 9/23/2005

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