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The Role Of Evaluation In Prevention Of College Student Drinking Problems

Robert F. Saltz, Ph.D.

April 2002

Prepared for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Subcommittee on College Drinking Panel 2 — Prevention and Treatment.

Newcomers to the topic of college student drinking are often puzzled to learn that our knowledge of “what works” is exceedingly slim. Those who work on college campuses or who have been students themselves know that there are any number of activities sponsored by the school or one of its many affiliates all done in the name of preventing student drinking problems. Yet, apart from some recent and promising interventions aimed at individual drinkers (Larimer and Cronce, 2002), the conscientious program specialist will find little empirical evidence available to guide his or her choice of interventions aimed at the broader college population. In their review of literature of college interventions, Hingson and colleagues (1998) were able to find only a single handful of programs with any appreciable evaluation over a span of two decades. Useful guides meant to aid administrators and program managers by identifying “promising practices” (e.g., Anderson and Milgram, 1997) are unable to find much empirical evidence of positive impact on the part of those interventions.

The irony is that this failing is observed precisely in those settings (i.e., institutions of higher education) where, presumably, the commitment to empirical research is high, and expertise in evaluation is available. How, then, can we account for the lack of a research base? Likely, it results from a combination of interrelated factors. First, it may be that the academic setting sets a standard of evaluation equivalent to that of research conducted for publication in academic journals. This is appropriate for some programs (e.g., NIH-funded research projects), but probably not for programs sponsored by their own campuses. A second, closely related possibility is that academic researchers may have difficulty accommodating their own interests and expectations to a project that might have limited promise of future publication. Of course, there is often a fear that evaluation may threaten favored programs or funding for prevention efforts. Sometimes evaluation is seen as a drain of funds that “should” be going to direct services. Inertia cannot be ruled out as a factor, either.

This chapter is aimed at encouraging program evaluation, though not by turning program specialists or college administrators into evaluators, and not by providing a “primer” on evaluation methods. Rather, we will lay out a rationale for building some aspect of evaluation into all interventions (whether they be programs or policies), discuss the barriers to evaluation and how they might be overcome, and then clarify the role of administrators and program planners with respect to successful evaluation.

If we had to summarize this chapter, it hopes to encourage administrators and program managers to address the need of evaluation, even if only in taking the beginning steps towards a full-scale implementation. In the sections to follow, we identify something of a “hierarchy” of evaluation, beginning with the need for clarifying program goals and objectives, identifying and obtaining data relevant for measuring whether those objectives are being achieved, and finally, designing evaluations in such a way as to maximize confidence in the validity of the evaluation analysis and simultaneously provide useful information to guide future directions for specific prevention programs.

College and university administrators, including state boards and even legislatures governing multiple campuses, are in a particularly important position to encourage the development of evaluation activities on their campuses. They can provide resources for data and evaluation, they can create a supportive atmosphere that overcomes fears that evaluation might threaten programs or positions, and they can set a priority for clear program objectives and strategies. It is our hope that working towards these goals will break the stalemate resulting from insufficient evaluation and the dominance of conventional wisdom in prevention programming.

To begin, then, evaluation has been described as the application of empirical research methods to the “conceptualization, design, implementation, and utility of social intervention programs” (Rossi et al., 1999). Evaluation turns the question of how or how well a program works into a research topic that can be addressed by a broad array of methods, measures, and analytic strategies.

I. That Sounds Like a Lot of Trouble… Why Do It?

II. Why Is It So Difficult?

III. Recommendations for Program Managers and College Administrators

IV. Resources for the Non-Specialist (References)


Last reviewed: 9/23/2005

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