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How Colleges Can Fight Binge-Drinking on Campus

In a September 2011 editorial for 'The Chronicle of Higher Education,' college professor Claire Potter offers up a bold message to higher ed institutions: your students are alcoholics, and they're drinking themselves into failure. Is she right? If so, what should schools do about it?

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By Eric Garneau

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A Culture of Drinking

Potter's Chronicle piece, entitled 'Forget the SATs. How Many Days Did Your Students Drink Last Week?' is certainly intended to provoke a rude awakening in both binge-drinking students and the institutions that house them. One might forgive her, then, for being a little sensationalistic, not to mention playing it really loose with statistics and citations. 'Here's the news: about half your students are situational alcoholics,' she tells colleges in one paragraph. In a bit of advice directed to professors, she states 'The vast majority of students who frantically contact a professor about an extension didn't work on the paper over the weekend; are short on sleep or ill from having stayed up drinking; and/or are either not working from Thursday afternoon on, or are hung over while they try to work.' With seemingly only anecdotal evidence to support her claims, Professor Potter doesn't make the most compelling argument, especially when she advocates draconian dormitory measures like 'Music should be off and students using headphones by 9 p.m.; lights should be out by 12:00…. Parties should be restricted to Friday and Saturday night.'

But if we find some actual data, we might see that Professor Potter has a point. In August 2010, Lexington, KY ABC affiliate WTVQ ran a report called 'Keeping College Students Healthy' that cited the following statistic: '80% of college students drink alcohol and 40% binge drink.' Perhaps more troubling is a 2011 article posted on professional psychology website PsychCentral.com. Titled 'Many College Students See Heavy Drinking Through 'Rose-Colored Beer Goggles',' it cites a University of Washington study that notes lots of 20-somethings believe the positive effects of binge drinking outweigh the negatives.

And despite her fairly blasé tossing-off of statistics, Potter's got a solid core point as well: that the kind of behaviors we excuse as 'letting off steam' or 'being young' in college students are considered destructive, pathological and maybe even criminal in adults. When students hold themselves to different standards than adults - and when their universities go along with it - a great disservice is being done, Potter thinks. In fact, she goes so far as to state that heavy drinking is the largest cause of student failure.

What Can Schools Do?

If Professor Potter's right, what actions can schools take to start curbing excessive drinking in their students? She offers up a list of 12 suggestions, from which some of the most compelling are represented below, along with our own commentary. If you find the drinking culture at your school oppressive, here are some tips to break its stranglehold:

Students need to be held fully accountable for their actions. It's easy for authority figures to say drinking is no excuse for bad behavior, but without actions to back it up that's nothing but empty words. Students whose academic performance falters because of an out-of-control social life need to be honest with themselves and their educators. They also need to be made responsible for any damage caused during their antics - broken furniture, ruined carpets, etc. Financial and personal culpability is key to making hard-partying students realize their actions have consequences. That's why Potter so adamantly insists that we label the truly pathological among these students for what they are - alcoholics.

Campuses: don't make drinking taboo in some places and okay in others. Some schools have a strange love-hate relationship with drinking. While outright condemning it in many instances, they may have a few dorms where it's okay to have alcohol, or one on-campus building that lists a bar among its tenants. This idea that mostly drinking's WRONG but sometimes it's maybe just a bit permissible creates some serious mixed messages. Campuses need to not tow the line when it comes to sanctioned drinking. Take a stance one way or the other. Having Byzantine rules only gives students more opportunities to exploit them.

Embrace students who drink responsibly and get them to share their wisdom. As a corollary to the point above, colleges need to realize that drinking's going to happen regardless of their official stance on the matter. Why not, then, foster a dialog between students who can pull off having a social life that includes alcohol with those who can't? Let the partiers who excel academically counsel the ones who don't in support groups or campus meetings - possibly those in the latter group can achieve some kind of balance between schoolwork and their social life. Professor Potter points out that no one understands students like other students, and top-down efforts to control drinking will rarely work as well as a student community that attempts to reign in bad habits on its own.

When campuses get named 'top party schools', they're usually not too happy about it.

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