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

Recommendations: Strategies to Reduce Student Alcohol Consumption

On the basis of the research to date, the Panel identified the following strategies as potentially promising in reducing excessive drinking among college students.

For Colleges and Universities

The Panel recommends that colleges and universities:

  • Ensure that research related to their own campus and community is developed and used to gain knowledge about the effectiveness of program interventions and the differential vulnerability of specific populations on campus.
  • Consider important methodological issues, including sample representativeness, sample size, the use of well-validated measures, and the integrity of data collection efforts when developing databases for assessment, surveillance, and evaluation.
  • Consider the full range and impact of the consequences of heavy drinking, from hangover and missing class to dropping out, damaging property, and alcohol poisoning.
  • Recognize that a single approach is unlikely to work for everyone on campus. Because there are multiple reasons for excessive drinking, multiple points of intervention are needed to address them.
  • Recognize that there are transition issues related to entering college, especially during the first few months, that make this a critical time for prevention and intervention activities.
  • Review policy and its implementation continually and update and/or expand it as needed.
  • Involve students in the planning and implementation of interventions; including students often helps ensure the effectiveness of such programs.
  • Consider student motivations for drinking when designing interventions and activities to take its place.
  • Review the scope of disciplinary sanctions associated with policy violations for appropriateness and for consistency of enforcement.
  • Consider carefully a student’s history of alcohol-related infractions to determine appropriate action when alcohol-related incidents occur. A prior history of occurrence indicates the need for a different level of attention than a first occurrence. Possibilities include a full clinical evaluation, referral to a substance abuse professional, monitoring, and, for those under 21 years of age, parent contact.
  • Recognize that students’ limited experiences with both drinking and sexual activity, together with the freedom to experiment inherent in the college environment, place them at elevated risk for combining drinking and sex in hazardous ways.
  • Given that at least 50 percent of sexual assaults on campus are alcohol-related, become aware of the scope of sexual assault on campus; determine how “victim friendly” college disciplinary procedures are; and develop opportunities for collaboration between persons responsible for alcohol abuse prevention and those responsible for sexual assault prevention.
  • Consider the potential impact on student alcohol use of faculty’s and other personnel’s consumption at college or university functions.
  • Consider carefully the potential mixed messages communicated by accepting sponsorships or gifts from the alcohol industry.

For the Research Community

The Panel recommends that researchers conduct studies to:

  • Characterize better the extent of clinical-level problems (alcohol abuse and dependence) and alcohol-related comorbidity in the college population.
  • Understand the relationship between clinical levels of drinking and student consumption indicators (e.g., heavy episodic drinking).
  • Examine the predictive value of college drinking for later alcohol-related problems.
  • Identify the economic consequences of college drinking, including the cost to colleges of damage to the physical plant.
  • Assess the impact of community pricing policies on drinking among college students.
  • Understand more completely the academic consequences of college drinking, including the mechanism(s) through which alcohol may influence academic outcomes.
  • Refine understanding of the heterogeneity of heavy drinking trajectories in adolescence and early adulthood, through longitudinal studies, with a particular focus on what factors determine moving from a heavy drinking or high episodic drinking pattern to a lower one, and vice versa.
  • Focus on how developmental transitions to college, to work afterward, to a new intimate partner, or to a new friendship can serve as windows of opportunity for effecting change in behavior, including drinking.
  • Examine the relationship between the prior drinking histories of incoming students and their use of alcohol in college and consider what other variables moderate this relationship.
  • Assess whether alcohol use by college students interferes with their social and emotional development (both short- and long-term).
  • Assess how institutional consequences (e.g., dismissal or other sanctions) affect drinking behavior.
  • Identify those problem-related, individual-level variables (e.g., drinking motivations) that are potentially modifiable; use this information to point to opportunities for intervention.
  • Discern how individual-level variables interact with the larger environment to identify possible environmental interventions that might reduce the risk of hazardous drinking for especially vulnerable individuals.
  • Improve understanding of the association between alcohol consumption and both acute and chronic problems, recognizing the complexities of the relationships, the influence of other variables at the individual and situational levels, and bidirectional causation; high-priority research areas include the effects of alcohol consumption on sexual behavior, sexual assault and other aggression, academic performance, and compliance with academic norms.
  • Assess more carefully the validity of self-report measures of student alcohol use and explore the use of alternative data collection methods, including observational, archival, and biomedical methods.


The Panel recommends that NIAAA:

  • Develop, in conjunction with other Federal agencies such as the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, a set of state-of-the-art measures of alcohol use and alcohol consequences and guidelines for sampling, data collection, and data analysis appropriate for assessing college student drinking. These measures could be used by colleges to develop databases for (1) monitoring trends, (2) assessing needs, (3) evaluating natural experiments, (4) evaluating planned interventions, and (5) facilitating multicollege comparisons.
  • Sponsor technical assistance workshops to provide instruction to college researchers and administrators on the state of the art in research. These workshops should stress the importance of gathering local data from different types of sources, such as college health departments and local police departments.
  • Offer technical assistance to colleges on the implementation of policy and interventions.
  • Establish national targets for the reduction of college drinking rates, and set timelines for the successful accomplishment of these goals.

The Panel concluded that intervention strategies based on sound, thoughtfully designed research studies are likely to have an effect on reducing excessive and underage alcohol use among college students. The Panel also stressed the need for ongoing evaluation efforts to monitor the interventions adopted and ensure that they continue to be useful and effective for years to come. Although excessive drinking on college campuses may seem like entrenched behavior, the Panel agreed that it is potentially modifiable with carefully targeted approaches endorsed by all stakeholders—including students—who truly value the institution.


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Historical document
Last reviewed: 9/23/2005

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