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College Drinking Prevention - Changing the Culture

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The Answer: Change the Culture. The Question: How?

When a student dies from intoxication or another alcohol-related incident makes headlines, college drinking captures the public's attention, for a while. On the campus itself, administrators deal with the immediate problem, and campus life soon returns to normal. Generally, the incident doesn't result in effective, long-term changes that reduce the consequences of college drinking.

Among the reasons for this seeming inattention to long-term solutions is that administrators see college drinking as an unsolvable problem. When schools have made efforts to reduce drinking among their students—and many have made considerable effort—they haven't had significant, campus-wide success. With each failed effort, the image of college drinking as an intractable problem is reinforced, administrators are demoralized, and the likelihood that schools will devote resources to prevention programs decreases.

One reason for the lack of success of prevention efforts is that, for the most part, schools have not based their prevention efforts on strategies identified and tested for effectiveness by research. Research on college drinking is a relatively young field, and the data are incomplete. Until the recent formation of the Task Force on College Drinking, administrators and researchers did not typically collaborate on this topic. Without the expertise of the research community, administrators were at a disadvantage in trying to identify and implement strategies or combinations of strategies to address alcohol problems specific to their schools.

The Task Force on College Drinking brought together experienced administrators and scientists, who assessed what both schools and researchers need to do to establish effective prevention programs. On the basis of their findings, they made the recommendations contained in this report. Their recommendations focus not on how to effect some type of blanket prohibition of drinking, but on changing the culture of drinking on campuses and involving the surrounding communities.

Foremost among their recommendations is that to achieve a change in culture, schools must intervene at three levels: at the individual-student level, at the level of the entire student body, and at the community level. Research conducted to date strongly supports this three-level approach. Within this overarching structure, schools need to tailor programs to address their specific alcohol-related problems. Underlying each recommendation is the Task Force's understanding that no two schools are alike, that environmental influences as well as individual student characteristics impact alcohol consumption, and that effective strategies extend beyond the campus itself to encompass the surrounding community.

The Task Force's focus is on how to change the culture that underlies alcohol misuse and its consequences on campus, rather than on simply determining the number of negative alcohol-related incidents that occur each year. But because data on the consequences of college drinking underscore the need for effective prevention strategies, these data are included in the section that follows. The report offers (1) a general approach to incorporating prevention programs on campus, (2) specific interventions that schools can combine to meet the needs of their campuses, and (3) recommendations for future research on college drinking.

What Can Research Bring to Prevention Programs?

The research community can provide schools with techniques that will enable them to:

  • realistically assess their alcohol-related problems;
  • develop research-based programs designed to prevent/ameliorate these problems;
  • adjust programs to meet individual schools’ needs; and
  • define measurable outcomes that can be used periodically to reflect a program’s success or the need for its further adjustment.

In conducting their work, members of the Task Force on College Drinking relied on the results of well-designed empirical studies to formulate their recommendations. They downplayed results of methodologically weak studies and assertions that exceeded what the data supported. Studies acceptable to the Task Force followed the principles of the scientific method and met rigorous design and execution criteria.

New techniques have enabled researchers to compare alcohol-related problems in large groups of college students and their noncollege peers and to map the extent of these problems, nationally and regionally. Armed with this information, researchers can determine how new laws and policies, alcohol-prevention programs, and trends in the general population affect drinking patterns among college students and their noncollege peers.

Research shows that a number of personal factors, from family background to alcohol use during high school, influence college students' drinking patterns. In the college environment, additional factors contribute to drinking patterns; for example, membership in fraternities or sororities, sports teams, or other social groups and college organizational factors such as size, location, and number of commuter students. Recent techniques enable researchers to test models for prevention that encompass a multiplicity of factors.


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Historical document
Last reviewed: 9/23/2005

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