Erin and Jason don't think they drink excessively. "When I think of bingeing, I think of people drinking until they puke," says Erin, a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Oregon, adding that she usually stops at six drinks when she goes out on the weekend.
"I think drinking to get really drunk is stupid," says Jason, a 21-year-old junior. So what is a reasonable amount? "I usually have seven or eight beers," he says as he takes a gulp from his sixth glass.
But the public health establishment says both Erin and Jason are binge drinkers, defined as anyone who has had at least five drinks (sometimes four drinks for women) in one sitting during the previous two weeks. College drinking has attracted a lot of attention recently with the release of several studies reporting that some two-fifths of college students are binge drinkers. The studies say virtually all binge drinkers admit suffering some negative consequences, ranging from hangovers to sexual assaults. And they don't hurt just themselves. In a 1994 study by the Harvard School of Public Health, 82 percent of nonbinge drinkers living in dorms, fraternities, or sororities said they had experienced "secondhand binge effects." As Selena, an 18-year-old Oregon freshman, puts it, "You always know when they come back from the bars at 4 a.m. screaming their heads off."
So last year, when the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) claimed the percentage of college women drinking to get drunk had more than tripled during the previous 15 years, the news media were quick to hype the finding that drinking on campus had reached "epidemic proportions." But as Kathy McNamara-Meis revealed in the Winter 1995 Forbes MediaCritic, CASA's conclusions were based on a misleading comparison of results from a 1977 survey of all college women and a 1992 survey of freshman women. Since freshmen drink more than any other class, such a comparison would suggest an increase in drunkenness even if nothing had changed. In fact, says David Hanson, a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam who has studied alcohol use on campus for more than 20 years, "the evidence shows that the actual trend is as flat as your little sister's chest."
As this episode suggests, the problems associated with college drinking are overstated and misunderstood. Since college students have limited responsibilities, they can usually drink heavily without serious repercussions. Drunken college students do sometimes get into trouble, of course. But this is not a drinking problem; it is a drinking behavior problem.
For neoprohibitionists, alcohol itself is the problem. In their eyes, college students are children–children who can vote and serve in the military, but still childrenwho must be shielded from the pernicious effects of drinking. According to the federal Office for Substance Abuse Prevention, "for kids under 21, there is no difference between alcohol or other drug use and abuse." Yet most college students under 21 don't think they are doing anything wrong by drinking. "I'm not hurting anyone," says Derek, a 20-year-old sophomore. "I'm just having a good time." Many college administrators say the 21-year purchase age just makes drinking more attractive.
"The 21 law makes alcohol a forbidden fruit and encourages underage students to drink," says Carl Wartenburg, dean of admissions at Swarthmore College. A 1994 survey by the CORE Institute at Southern Illinois University found that students under 21 drink more, and more often, than older students.
Underage students at the University of Oregon have little trouble obtaining alcohol. Most dorms have a no-use policy, but resident assistants just try to crack down on partying and encourage students to drink off campus. Fake IDs are everywhere. If they don't have IDs, students usually can find a party off campus or get someone older to buy for them.
Students may drink to let off steam, or drink to get drunk, or boast about how much they can drink without puking. But college drinking, by and large, remains social drinking. UO students could buy a half-rack of Henry Weinhard's Ale and drink at home. But instead they pay a lot more to drink at Rennie's or Max's because they want to be around other people.
Drinking isn't only something to do–it's something everyone can do together. It's how many freshmen begin meeting people. "You don't know anybody, and then somebody hands you a beer and pretty soon you're hanging out with a bunch of guys," says Eric, a 19-year-old sophomore, remembering his first days in college. Freshmen drink hard early on: A 1995 Harvard study of college freshmen found that 70 percent binge drink in their first semester. But after students find their social circle (and worship once or twice at the Temple of the Porcelain God), many decide to drink infrequently or not at all.
But others choose to drink throughout college. "When people ask me why college students drink," says Hanson, the sociologist, "I say, 'Why not?'" People in the "real world" have too little time and too many responsibilities to drink heavily night after night. They have to get up early five days a week, work all day, then go home to their families. Co-workers and family members count on them to live up to their obligations. College students are usually responsible only for themselves. All they have to do is go to a few classes and study when it's convenient. Michael Haines, coordinator of Health Enhancement Services at Northern Illinois University, notes that campus life is set up for binge behavior of all kinds. Students stay up one night cramming for a test, sleep in until noon the next day, then drink all night.
Research finds that college students who drink heavily have lower grades than those who drink moderately or not at all. But these students generally aren't chemistry majors whose grades and classes will be critical for graduate school and future careers. They tend to be business or social science majors who will probably end up in jobs that have little to do with their academic studies. "The truth is that most students can go out drinking several nights a week and get by," says Wartenburg, the Swarthmore dean.
College students get into trouble not because they drink to get drunk but because they get drunk to be irresponsible. "I was drunk" is a get-out-of-jail-free card for college students who act like idiots, get into fights, climb into construction equipment, or behave in other unacceptable or embarrassing ways. It works because friends know that drinking makes people lose control and they may want to use alcohol as an excuse for their own behavior, especially sexual behavior. According to the Harvard study, 41 percent of frequent binge drinkers engage in unplanned sexual activity, as opposed to only 4 percent for nonbinge drinkers.
But unplanned does not mean unwanted. Students drink because they want to feel uninhibited. Men are less hesitant to approach women because they know that if their advances are rejected, they can laugh it off later, saying they were drunk. Women, who still face a double standard when it comes to sleeping around, can blame one-night stands on alcohol.
So men and women have a strong incentive to attribute sexual behavior to drinking, which can be dangerous. Men may be inappropriately aggressive, and willing women may later claim they did not consent. The popularity of the alcohol excuse also helps explain the higher rates of unplanned and unprotected sex while drinking, because halting "uncontrollable" sex to be responsible would destroy the illusion of chemical compulsion.
Although alcohol has consistent effects on motor skills among people of different cultures, its effects on behavior may have more to do with expectations than with pharmacology. Researchers at Washington University in Seattle have found that students who think they are drinking alcoholic beverages become more animated and aggressive, even if they've had only tonic water. Anthropologists have discovered that alcohol's behavioral effects are shaped by culture. In Europe, people grow up drinking beer or wine as a normal part of family life, so drinking is no big deal and generally doesn't cause problems. Americans, by contrast, have always been ambivalent about drinking. As Hanson notes, we "think dry and act wet": We associate drinking with negative behavior but do it anyway. In addition to a person's "set" (beliefs and expectations), the "setting" where drinking takes place has an important impact on drinking behavior. A young man having wine at a family dinner will not behave the same as he would at a bachelor party.
College drinking behavior usually resembles a bachelor party more than a family dinner, but it also varies with the situation. When students go to a $3.00 all-you-can-drink kegger, they descend into a dimly lit, damp, smoky, and crowded basement. The beer is terrible, there's no place to sit, and everyone is pushing and shoving to get their money's worth before the keg runs out. The only thing to do is drink fast and hard. Students at keggers are mostly underage because they have nowhere else to drink, thanks to the 21 law.
Things are usually more festive at college bars and fraternity functions. The beer is flowing, so students can relax and have a good, rowdy time. Drinking takes on a party atmosphere, which means strong sexual overtones. Bars and frat parties keep the music at a throbbing volume, making it difficult to talk.
But at the East 19th Street Cafe, one of five microbreweries near the UO campus, the music is turned down low so people can talk without shouting and savor the premium ales, porters, and stouts. The brew pubs are probably the closest college equivalent to an adult drinking environment. Some graduate students and twentysomethings come to 19th Street, but most patrons are undergraduates who also spend a lot of time in the campus bars. No matter how much people had to drink, I never witnessed drunken or boorish behavior by anyone at a brewery.
With an understanding of how set and setting affect drinking behavior, social norms can be used to control problems. People used to wink and laugh at drunk driving. Now it's considered reckless and stupid, and drunk-driving fatalities have fallen dramatically. Many college administrators would like to design programs to encourage responsible drinking, but they are blocked by federal law. Thanks to the Drug-Free Schools and Community Act Amendments of 1989, universities must have an official no-use alcohol policy for students under 21 or risk losing federal funds, including student financial aid. "It's hard to teach people how to do something responsibly if it's illegal to do it at all," says Swarthmore's Wartenburg.
Nevertheless, some colleges are succeeding. In the late 1980s, officials at Northern Illinois University realized that the traditional approach of controlling consumption and keeping alcohol away from underage students wasn't working. A 1988 survey found that 43 percent of NIU students were binge drinkers, but students believed 70 percent were. NIU administrators thought that misperception of the campus norm was encouraging drinking. "What people feel is the norm has a rather potent influence on behavior," Haines, the NIU administrator, observes.
So with a slim budget of $6,000, the university began taking out ads in the campus paper during the 1989–90 school year reporting actual binge-drinking rates on campus. It also hired students to dress up like the Blues Brothers and hand out dollar bills to anyone who could report this information correctly. By 1995, perceived binge drinking had fallen to 43 percent. More important, actual binge drinking fell to 28 percent, and alcohol-related problems fell proportionally.
Officials at the University of Oregon are hoping to transplant Northern Illinois's success to their campus. Oregon is also one of many colleges that has set up substance-free dorms for students who want to avoid the mayhem in the regular dorms. "It's a great way for people who don't want to drink to avoid people who do," says Hanson. But there is probably a limit to what colleges and universities can do. The days when colleges served in loco parentis are long gone.
The best place for students to learn responsible drinking behavior is at home. "Children follow in their parents' footsteps," says Hanson. "What they learn in the home has more impact than what they pick up from friends or at school." Instead of allowing other students to teach their children "normal" drinking behavior, parents can teach their children to drink in moderation, with food, and in the company of adults.
Unfortunately, Hanson says, many parents are reluctant to teach their children responsible drinking when underage drinking is illegal outside the home and public health campaigns warn against sending "mixed messages." But accountability is not a mixed message. The principle that people are responsible for their behavior even when drinking should be drilled into young people's heads by parents as they are growing up and reinforced in college.
Not that college students would abandon keggers, campus bars, and frat parties altogether. College is not the real world, and responsible drinking has a different meaning there. "You gotta do it [drinking] in moderation," says Craig, a 23-year-old University of Oregon senior. "I think that you should go out once a week and get wasted–that's moderation."
Ed Carson is a staff reporter for REASON.