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The Challenge for Colleges and Communities

The consequences of excessive student drinking have historically placed college presidents and administrators in untenable positions. When student deaths, injuries, or brawls occur on campus, the response tends to be immediate and focused largely on the individual students and families involved. Once the crisis recedes, there is little incentive to consider either the root causes of such events or their broader implications, especially when other priorities compete for a president's time and attention. In addition, there is little incentive for partnerships between the university or college and the surrounding community, leaving the university or college with the entire problem.

A number of other factors related to students' rights and liability concerns also discourage schools from exploring the issue further and implementing prevention programs. At what point, for example, is a student's right of privacy violated because of the institution's concerns about alcohol abuse? Does a college face legal liability if it designates a residence hall substance-free when the majority of its students are underage? How does an institution respond to the residential requirements of students in recovery whose needs are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act? If stepped-up enforcement efforts limit the availability of alcohol on campus, will students endanger themselves and others by driving to off-campus bars? How will alumni react to changes in school "traditions" with respect to alcohol? Although colleges can resolve each of these concerns, the process takes time and requires a substantial commitment of leadership and resources.

On the basis of experience, many schools also tend to be justifiably concerned about prevention efforts where data collection is a key activity. Data collection efforts can be difficult to implement on campus. Legal and ethical considerations, such as the necessity of obtaining consent from parents and the obligation to protect the confidentiality of student responses, impede and frequently stop the process completely. Colleges and universities that persist despite these barriers sometimes find that the resulting data are subjectively interpreted and may be used to tarnish a school's reputation.

The widespread perception that student-drinking rates are immutable is another deterrent to action. Given these obstacles, it is not surprising that some colleges are reluctant to undertake and sustain rigorous efforts to address underage and excessive drinking on campuses.

Impact of Inadequate Information

Both college presidents and researchers on the Task Force agreed that the perception that underage and excessive college drinking is intractable reflects the need for more credible research and evaluation to be brought to this issue. In general, colleges and universities have not applied the methods, techniques, and findings from cutting-edge alcohol prevention research to the problem of college student drinking.

Problems with Program Design

In some cases, campus initiatives have been designed without considering the important role of research in planning and evaluating a school's alcohol program. As a result, principles useful in selecting effective programs have been overlooked. Without this knowledge, colleges find it difficult to identify and combine strategies that address the particular drinking problems on their campuses. The role of science should be emphasized more for planning (selecting evidence-based strategies) and evaluation (determining effects of any current strategies).

Impact on Implementation

Implementation is another area where insufficient research shortchanges schools. Without a strong research base to guide their formulation, program objectives tend to be nonspecific or unrealistic. Lack of information also affects a college's capacity to develop a meaningful staffing plan and budget, deficiencies that limit program success at the outset. When vital information is not included in program design, used to guide implementation, and monitored through careful evaluation, results are likely to be disappointing.

Results of Prolonged Ineffectiveness

In addition to poor outcomes, prevention efforts that fail to achieve their goals:

  • Demoralize the many college administrators who are charged with addressing this problem;

  • Leave fewer resources available for investment in productive programs; and

  • Lead to a growing sense of fatalism about the issue.

With resources committed to ineffective programs, the problems associated with underage and excessive college drinking—violence, injuries, sexual assaults, vandalism, poor academic performance—persist and, in the process, derail and sometimes destroy the lives of many of the Nation's most promising young adults. Reversing this situation is crucial and, from the Task Force's perspective, will happen only if every college and university president works in conjunction with the alcohol research community to implement evidence-based prevention strategies. Task Force members also understand that for some administrators this step represents a mindset change—one that looks to validated research for genuine answers rather than quick fixes, which may seem appealing when confronted with a crisis.


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Historical document
Last reviewed: 9/23/2005

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