Is Drinking Now Part of the University/College Experience?

Just what is being taught at school? The Western post-secondary education is supposed to be a place of intellectual discourse and personal exploration. However, new research is shining light on the exploration that people engage in as university or college students. It’s sad that something as unproductive as drinking is such a major part of the student culture, but it’s considered to be just another normal part of the bigger picture of education. But here’s the really surprising fact: Students at post-secondary institutes drink more than their non-student counterparts.

Students vs. Non-students

These findings were reported last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education. But before you start wondering just who the smart ones really are (the educated or the non-educated?), usage for narcotics and other such drugs are more prevalent in non-students. So I guess when people ask for you to “pick your poison,” that would be alcohol for the educated, and narcotics for the others. The chart below describes the results from a 2009 study, comparing students and non-students in substance abuse.

If we define “having a drinking problem” as being required to seek medical attention after drinking, then almost half of American college students have a drinking problem. To make matters worse, drinking is also taking a large toll on the already battered U.S. economy.

A new study from the University of Wisconsin, to be released in a few weeks, found that about 44% of American college students binge-drink, and rack up the bills at local hospitals. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) reported:

At universities with at least 40,000 students, total expenses stemming from blackout-related visits to emergency departments run $469,000 to $546,000 a year, the study projects.

[. . .] College alcohol abusers susceptible to blackouts put a heavy burden on the medical-care system. Given limited campus resources, the study results support targeting efforts at preventing alcohol-related injury at students with a history of blackouts.

But they are not the only ones.

Not Just the USA

I was very surprised to hear all of this; but clearly, this is not an American-only phenomenon. Almost a decade ago, the University of Western Ontario, Canada, released data collected from a national mail survey conducted in 1998. It included a random sample of 7,800 students from 16 universities. The researchers wrote the following in the published paper:

Overall, 62.7% and 34.8% of students reported consuming 5 or more drinks and 8 or more drinks, respectively, on a single occasion at least once during the fall semester. On average, drinkers reported having 5 or more drinks almost 5 times during the fall semester, and having 8 or more drinks almost twice during the same period. The groups reporting the highest rates of heavy drinking were males, those living in university residences, those with low academic orientation and those with high recreational orientation.

Generally, this study has shown that heavy drinking is highly engrained in Canadian undergraduates’ drinking patterns, and is related to a number of factors. These factors can be used to develop targeted prevention efforts.

According to the University of the Frazer Valley, more research from Canada says:

[In] a random sample of 6,282 full-time students from 40 universities, found that a large majority (85.7 per cent) of students used alcohol in the past year and that more than three-quarters (77.1 per cent) reported using alcohol in the past month. That survey also determined that more than 15 per cent of students self-identified as frequent or heavy drinkers and more than one-third admitted to being hazardous drinkers — five drinks in one sitting — but not on a weekly basis.”

“Some predictions can be made with absolute certainty,” says MacLeans.ca. “The tides will shift. The sun will rise. And young university students will drink to excess.” And with the amount of money being spent on alcohol increasing every year, it begs the question: What do we do about it?

Some universities are taking measures like the University of Guelph in Ontario, which banned drinking during their orientation week since a few years ago. I’m not sure how they enforce that, but it has apparently been a success, as the number of medical treatments related to drinking slightly fell since they implemented the ban. Other universities are being even more strict, such as St. Thomas University, in New Brunswick, which banned alcohol in one of its dormitories.

Some people worry, however, that these measures will not help the situation, and others still say it may even make things worse. Students may start drinking underground, or look for parties off-campus. MacLeans says “University students will drink, and it is naive to ignore this fact. But parents and universities—and the students themselves, who have an equal responsibility to look out for one another—must find ways to make our campuses safer, regardless of life’s inevitabilities.”

All Over the World

Drinking on campuses also affects countries outside of North America. The University of Canberra in Australia “found 86 per cent of students are drinkers and almost half of them drink at harmful levels.” Researcher Amanda George reported that students drink in order to bond, or if they have nothing else to do. Another study, published in 1996 in the Lancet, looked at 3075 university students from the UK, saying:

11% of the students were non-drinkers. Among drinkers, 61% of the men and 48% of the women exceeded “sensible” limits of 14 units per week for women and 21 for men. Hazardous drinking (> or = 36 units per week for women, > or = 51 for men) was reported by 15% of the drinkers. Binge drinking was declared by 28% of drinkers.

And this problem extends to non-Western countries as well. A report from Korea last year said:

Drinking is a serious problem among Korean university students. A study last year showed that 94.4 percent of university students drank at least once a year, which was higher than among U.S. students (86 percent) and Korean adults (78.5 percent). [. . .] Choi Eun-joo, at the foundation’s alcohol counseling center in Mapo said, “More than half of the students who received counseling were women, and 15 percent of the women said they drink on a daily basis until they have no recollection of what happened the previous night.”

Research dating back to 1995 from Japan found about 10% of its 359 new students from two universities were alcohol abusers. “In both sexes,” the paper reported, “the drinking patterns remarkably changed after the entrance of university. Even in females, the drinking pattern markedly changed.” Naturally, anecdotes like in November 2010 demonstrate the seriousness of the situation in Japan. That was when an 18-year-old university student drank too much at a party, got alcohol poisoning, and died.

Several American universities have been coming together with Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim’s leadership, to treat binge drinking as if were any other public health problem. They claim that they’re seeing a positive effect in the students, by educating them on drinking.

But there are also some unexpected preventative measures – for lack of a better term – which students can take. Research from the University of Dalhousie in Halifax, Canada, found that dating partners significantly influence each others’ drinking behavior. One author of the study, Simon Sherry, said “Pick your friends and lovers carefully because they influence you more than you think.” Or, likewise, you could be the one to influence your friends and lovers.

[June 25 Update: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) will soon officially change the definition of alcoholism to be more broad. A few of the new symptoms included in the new definition are drinking more than intended and craving alcohol. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, 14,000 American students among 119 colleges reported via questionnaire enough symptoms to indicate that 37% of students would be considered alcoholics under the new definition. But that study was carried out a decade ago, so the rates may be even higher today.]

What Does This All Mean?

No one is going to suggest that drinking is unequivocally bad – drinking too much is bad. And I think it goes without saying that drinking is okay if done responsibly. The real questions I’m curious about are these:

  1. Has binge-drinking become normal for college students?
  2. Should there be any prohibition or policing of drinking at college whatsoever? (Assuming no laws are being broken, such as vandalism)
  3. Will non-binge-drinkers become the new minority?

With the numbers of drinkers at such a high level, we may find out in the next few decades. But if you have an answer, leave a comment.

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