What We Have Learned: High-Risk Drinking

After spending the last six months examining extreme behaviors on campus, assessing their root causes, and looking at the way peer institutions have dealt with their own versions of these problems, we believe we are well on our way to offering a set of recommendations to President Hanlon that will strengthen our campus and make it a safer and more inclusive place. In the next several weeks, we will be telling you about some of the practices of other institutions that are dealing with high-risk drinking, sexual assault, and the lack of inclusivity. It is our assumption that Dartmouth can profit from the expertise of our peers, but also that any changes we make to campus life must be attentive to the unique dynamics of our community. Above all, we hope our recommendations will implement changes that produce positive, lasting effects.

Although many college students do not drink at all and many drink moderately, high-risk drinking–five or more drinks in one sitting for men; four or more for women–appears to be a problem that plagues every campus in America. In reality, students who binge drink are often consuming twice as much alcohol as the standard definition describes (i.e., 10 or 9 drinks in one sitting). Ninety percent of the alcohol consumed by underage drinkers is in the form of binge drinking. Exacerbated by pre-gaming and drinking games, such behavior has come to define for too many what it means to party at college. The goal of binge drinking, according to the experts we consulted, is not only to decrease inhibition or facilitate social interaction but to get “black-out drunk.” Transports to the hospital for acute, life-threatening intoxication are so much a part of American campus life today that no student we have interviewed seems to find this phenomenon unusual. That this has become a norm on college campuses is deeply concerning to all members of the community–faculty, staff, alumni, and parents–who care about the well-being of our young people.

What are the root causes that lie behind these current patterns of high-risk drinking? Understanding what drives students to the end point of blacking out has been studied by a host of experts, including members of Dartmouth’s own Anthropology Department. Most agree that the college drinking environment is fueled by a sense of extraterritoriality, where students do not feel themselves accountable to outside social or cultural norms. Ignoring the legal drinking age, which prohibits drinking under the age of 21, contributes to this widespread feeling that a college campus is not operating under the same rules as the rest of society. Some students exploit this sense to indulge, not just in underage drinking, but also behavior – such as public urination and vomiting, as well as sexual harassment — which would be unacceptable in any venue, even for legal drinkers. In addition, we have noted that some students believe they gain considerable social capital in the shared experience of binge drinking, claiming that getting wasted together produces a strong sense of camaraderie.

Experts suggest several ways to address the problem of high-risk drinking. Reducing the amount of alcohol available on campus is a frequent recommendation. Requiring that students pay for drinks at on-campus parties, even a modest amount, has been shown to have a sobering effect. Requiring non-student bartenders at parties also reduces excessive and underage consumption. Addressing the pipelines that bring alcohol onto campus is another way of reducing the flow. Firming up the sanctions against students or other community members who procure alcohol for underage drinkers, who are often most at risk for binge drinking, is also a frequent suggestion. Bringing more adult presence into the spaces where students engage in drinking has been shown to affect the type of drinking that occurs. Providing substance-free social venues on campus also challenges the perceived norm of excessive drinking. Finally, some schools have experimented with banning hard alcohol on campus as a way of mediating the degree of intoxication that can be achieved in one drinking episode. Schools that have successfully implemented hard alcohol bans have seen reductions in the number of hospital transports among their student populations.

Are there other ways to counter the assumption that binge drinking is or should be the norm on our campus? We believe that drinking to excess is just one piece of the puzzle of student life on campus today, a symptom of other pressures and expectations that compel students to behave in ways that are antithetical to their personal health and safety. As we report next on our findings about sexual assault and lack of inclusivity, we hope to suggest how interdependent these phenomena are, and how important it is to address them not as discrete occurrences but as part of a larger matrix of the undergraduate experience.