Conference Notebook: Battle Against Alcohol Abuse Lags, but Drinking Doesn't

April 03, 2011

Campus efforts to raise students' understanding of the hazards of alcohol abuse increased through the 1980s and have since tapered off. Nonetheless, the incidence of heavy drinking among students has remained relatively steady—and a cause for concern—for three decades, said a speaker at the annual conference of ACPA—College Student Educators International.

David S. Anderson, director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Health at George Mason University, said last week that alcohol-awareness efforts were probably never as extensive as they needed to be and that, when the needle didn't move, campus administrators got fatigued.

"It's hard," Mr. Anderson told attendees. "It's an uphill battle."

Meanwhile, alcohol's involvement in certain incidents on campuses has increased since 1994, according to the most recent College Alcohol Survey, which Mr. Anderson worked on. Colleges reported that alcohol was involved in 52 percent of acquaintance rapes in 2009, compared with 42 percent in 1994. And 58 percent of cases of violent behavior involved alcohol in 2009, versus 48 percent in 1994.

The findings come from a survey of 330 four-year colleges. The same group of colleges has been surveyed every three years since 1979, although the response rates vary somewhat each time. (The data on heavy drinking by students comes from a separate survey of students themselves, the Monitoring the Future study.)

Mr. Anderson said many colleges had shifted away from certain types of student education, like alcohol-awareness weeks, and toward more-restrictive campus policies. In 2009 more colleges (75 percent) reported that they had policies that allow for mandatory drug-testing of athletes than in 1994 (49 percent). And colleges are much less likely to allow bars to advertise on their campuses.

To make sure campus policies are accompanied by strong alcohol-education programs, Mr. Anderson said, student-affairs officials need to advocate for resources by showing that awareness efforts make financial sense for colleges. For example, he said, officials should dig into student data and see what role alcohol plays in attrition on their campuses.

Mr. Anderson stressed that student-affairs officials also need to look more deeply at the root causes of alcohol abuse if alcohol-education programs are to be more successful than those in the past.

Judicial Fairness

Litigious students loom large, but most students involved in campus judicial proceedings say they were treated fairly and learned from the experience, according to survey results presented last week by the National Assessment of Student Conduct Adjudication Processes Project.

"There's a lot of good news in the data," said Steven M. Janosik, a consultant for the project and an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Virginia Tech.

Over three years of annual surveys, the project, known as Nascap, polled about 3,800 students who went through misconduct cases at 23 institutions of various types. Counter to the expectations of campus officials beset by complaints, researchers found that 79 percent of students felt they were treated respectfully, and 66 percent said they were treated fairly.

More than half of the students reported recognizing how their misconduct had affected others, and nearly two-thirds said they understood administrators' concern. "Students put it in perspective pretty quickly," Mr. Janosik said.

Students also reported benefiting from the campus-conduct system. More than two-thirds said they were less likely to engage in the same behavior again, and about two-thirds said they were less likely to engage in any further misconduct at all.

The Nascap survey, now in its fourth year, also seeks to measure campus culture around misconduct. For example, over the past three years, 47 percent of students reported that their peers had held one another accountable for their behavior.

Mr. Janosik hopes to expand the Nascap project to try to improve judicial systems nationwide. Annual campus reports tend to focus on the number of cases, he said. Those reports may show which resident advisers are the biggest sticklers, he said, but they reflect little about students' experiences.