Why Colleges Haven’t Stopped Binge Drinking

Decades of attention without much difference

Beer cans litter the ground at the U. of Maryland at College Park on a football game day in October.

Despite decades of research, hundreds of campus task forces, and millions invested in bold experiments, college drinking remains as much of a problem as ever.

More than 1,800 students die every year of alcohol-related causes. An additional 600,000 are injured while drunk, and nearly 100,000 become victims of alcohol-influenced sexual assaults. One in four say their academic performance has suffered from drinking, all according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The binge-drinking rate among college students has hovered above 40 percent for two decades, and signs are that partying is getting even harder. More students now drink to get drunk, choose hard liquor over beer, and front-load, or drink in advance of social events. For many the goal is to black out.

Drinking is so central to students’ expectations of college that they will fight for what they see as a basic right. After Syracuse University, named the nation’s No. 1 party school by the Princeton Review, tried to limit a large outdoor gathering, outraged students labeled the campus a police state.

Why has the drumbeat of attention, effort, and money failed to influence what experts consider a public-health crisis? It’s not for lack of information. Dozens of studies show exactly why, when, where, and how students drink. Plenty more identify effective intervention and prevention strategies. A whole industry has sprung up around educating students on the dangers of alcohol abuse.

Many colleges focus on social-norming campaigns, telling students that there isn’t as much drinking on campus as they might think. It’s a message that can seem at odds with scenes like this tailgate at the U. of Maryland at College Park.

For the most part, undeterred by evidence that information alone isn’t enough, colleges continue to treat alcohol abuse as an individual problem, one that can be fixed primarily through education.

“Institutions of higher education are still really committed to the idea that if we just provide the right information or the right message, that will do the trick, despite 30 or 40 years of research that shows that’s not true,” says Robert F. Saltz, a senior research scientist at the Prevention Research Center, part of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. “The message isn’t what changes behavior. Enforcement changes behavior.”

Yet many colleges still look the other way. Few have gone after environmental factors like cheap and easy access to alcohol. Or lenient attitudes toward underage drinking. A Greek system fueled by booze. Alcohol-soaked traditions like football tailgates and spring flings. They all remain staples of college life.

At some colleges, presidents are reluctant to take on boosters and alumni who fervently defend rituals where drinking can get out of control. Administrators responsible for prevention often aren’t equipped with the community-organizing skills to get local politicians, bar owners, and the police to try new approaches, enforce laws, and punish bad actors. And where profits and tax revenue are at stake, as with local bars and sporting events, colleges encounter resistance that they are unable or unwilling to overcome.

A student’s death or an unwelcome party-school ranking might prompt action, but it is unlikely to be sustained or meaningful. A new prevention program or task force has only so much impact.

Even at colleges that try to confront these issues comprehensively, turnover and limited budgets pose significant obstacles. When administrations change, so do priorities. Key staff members move on. Each year a new class of freshmen comes in ready to party. Monitoring drinking in dorm rooms, let alone sparking real change, can seem all but impossible.

If this is an era of resignation, the 1990s were one of possibility. College presidents declared alcohol abuse the greatest threat to campus life, and the federal government demanded that they do something.

The first large-scale examination of alcohol use among college students began in 1993. Run by Henry Wechsler, a social psychologist at the Harvard University School of Public Health, the College Alcohol Study surveyed 17,000 students at 140 colleges on why and how they drink.

The following year, Mr. Wechsler pronounced 44 percent of all college students binge drinkers, coining that use of the term to mean consuming four or five drinks in a row, and setting off a storm of news coverage. The results helped shift public understanding of college drinking from a relatively harmless pastime to a public-health concern. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which financed the first survey, invested millions in further surveys and research.

Mr. Wechsler and his team painted a complex portrait of campus culture, one in which the environment fuels excessive drinking. More than half of the bars surrounding campuses, they found, used discounts and other promotions to lure in students. Higher rates of binge drinking were associated with membership in a fraternity or sorority, a belief that most students drink, and easy access to alcohol.

At the same time, the studies made clear that much is beyond colleges’ control. Half of students had started binge drinking before they got to campus. In states where alcohol was a problem generally, colleges showed higher binge-drinking rates. On the other hand, strong laws against fake IDs and other restrictive measures were correlated with lower levels of drinking among young people.

Advocates and policy makers sensed an opportunity. The U.S. Department of Education established the Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Drug Use and Violence Prevention, which provided research, training, and technical assistance. Mr. Wechsler’s findings sparked a 10-campus experiment, called A Matter of Degree, to try to bring drinking under control. Focusing on colleges with higher-than-average rates of binge drinking, the project aimed to prove that by working with community partners to change the environment, colleges have the power to shift student behavior. The Johnson foundation put more than $17-million into the project, which was conducted with the American Medical Association over a 12-year period.

But attention doesn’t equal action, never mind progress. Early results showed that in the first few years, half of the colleges involved didn’t try much of anything. The other half reported “significant although small” improvements in drinking behavior. Meanwhile, a survey of about 750 college presidents found that they were sticking to what they’d always done, focusing on arguably effective “social norming” campaigns, which aim to curb students’ drinking with the message that their peers don’t drink as much as it seems. Today a number of colleges that participated in the lengthy experiment still struggle with students’ alcohol problems, even showing up on party-school lists.

The magnitude and complexity of the challenges facing colleges were clear. Thriving fake-ID industries. Endless happy hours. Limited enforcement of alcohol and noise ordinances off campus. Greek systems that revolve around drinking and dominate social life.

Several colleges developed new programs: training servers, notifying parents when underage students were caught drinking, and coordinating enforcement with the local police. Setbacks, however, were common. Louisiana State University found local bar owners hostile to the idea of scaling back happy hours or drink specials. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, the campus-community coalition had little authority. To appeal to local businesses, a new mayor in Newark, Del., weakened regulations on selling alcohol near dormitories at the public flagship university.

At Florida State University, a local partnership’s efforts were met with stiff resistance from the alcohol industry, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2003. Bar owners and distributors formed a competing group to oppose the quest for new laws and regulations to control students’ access to alcohol. The university eventually backed down. The president at the time said he didn’t want to spend his political capital given everything else he was trying to accomplish in the Florida Legislature.

The following years saw the end of several major projects. Mr. Wechsler’s College Alcohol Study wrapped up in 2006, having surveyed 50,000 students and produced reams of research. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shifted its attention elsewhere. The Amethyst Initiative, a campaign by more than 100 college presidents to reconsider the legal drinking age, came and quickly went. And in 2012, funding cuts eliminated the federal center that had guided colleges on preventing alcohol and drug abuse.

Jim Yong Kim, a physician with a public-health background who was president of Dartmouth College, attempted to drag the issue back into the spotlight, announcing an intensive, public-health and data-driven approach to dealing with campus drinking. He used his influence to drum up participation from 32 institutions in the National College Health Improvement Program’s Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking, and secured money to keep it going for two years. But when he left Dartmouth to lead the World Bank, in 2012, the leadership and the money dried up. The project issued its first and final report this year.

Educators and researchers who lived through this period say a combination of exhaustion, frustration, inertia, lack of resources, and campus and community politics derailed the national conversation about college drinking. Taking on the problem proved tougher than anyone had thought.

“All those efforts caused some issue fatigue,” says John D. Clapp, director of the federal alcohol and drug center when it closed. The feeling, he says, was “Hey, we tried this, and it’s time to move on.”

The apparent paradox today is this: Colleges keep trying to reduce extreme drinking, but the numbers aren’t getting any better.

It’s hard to change the status quo by tinkering at the margins. Many colleges continue pursuing disjointed and short-term measures with limited impact and little staying power.

Almost all four-year colleges have alcohol policies and require incoming students to take some kind of course, often online, that warns of the dangers of alcohol abuse, according to surveys by researchers at the University of Minnesota. Most campuses provide alcohol-free housing and run party patrols. And half offer intervention or recovery programs for problem drinkers. Of the 32 campuses in the group started by the former Dartmouth president, most focused their energy on alcohol policies, social-norming campaigns, educational programs, and student surveys.

But that’s the relatively easy, noncontroversial stuff. Angry alumni won’t rise up over an online prevention course.

Here’s what colleges aren’t doing. Fewer than half consistently enforce their alcohol policies at tailgates, in dormitories, and at fraternity and sorority houses. Only a third do compliance checks to monitor illegal alcohol sales in nearby neighborhoods. Just 7 percent try to restrict the number of outlets selling alcohol, and 2 percent work to reduce cheap drink specials at local bars, according to the Minnesota researchers.

Yet restricting easy access to alcohol and penalizing students who break the rules do make a difference, studies suggest. One project, Safer California Universities, tested a series of community-based prevention strategies, and found that the number of people getting drunk at off-campus parties and bars dropped significantly. Participating colleges used DUI checks, underage decoys, party patrols, and enforcement of local ordinances that hold hosts liable for any trouble caused by their drunken guests.

So why aren’t more colleges taking such bold action?

Philosophically, many educators are resistant to the idea of policing students. They would prefer to treat them as young adults who can make good choices with the right motivation. Traci L. Toomey, who directs the alcohol-epidemiology program at Minnesota’s School of Public Health, recalls visiting a campus that had long prided itself on letting students monitor the flow of alcohol at social events. “As if somehow magically they’d do a great job,” she says.

That college was part of the Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking, in which other participants also expressed resistance to designing and enforcing better prevention policies. “There was all this talk about protecting students’ rights and treating them like adults, and oftentimes it was really about protecting the students who were drinking,” says Ms. Toomey. “I tried to raise the question: Not all of our students drink, and not all drink heavily. Their rights are being violated, their ability to study, to sleep, to walk across campus safely. Why aren’t we protecting their rights?”

That institutional ambivalence can hamper enforcement. In the Minnesota surveys, only about 60 percent of campus law-enforcement officials said they almost always proactively enforce alcohol policies. Half cited barriers such as understaffing and students’ easy access to alcohol at private parties and at bars that don’t check IDs. Only 35 percent of colleges’ law-enforcement units almost always issue criminal citations for serious alcohol-related incidents, preferring instead to refer cases to other offices, like judicial or student affairs.

Students themselves say more-aggressive enforcement could change their behavior. One survey of those who had violated their colleges’ alcohol policies found that parental notification, going through the criminal-justice system, or being required to enter an alcohol treatment program would be more of a deterrent than fines and warnings.

Top administrators rarely carry the banner of prevention and make it a campuswide priority. Instead, efforts are shouldered by entry-level health or student-affairs coordinators, which can result in narrow approaches.

That makes structural change difficult. How do you limit excessive or underage drinking off campus without enlisting the support of the owners of liquor stores and bars? How do you deal with an oversaturation of bars without talking with politicians and state licensing agencies? How do you crack down on off-campus parties without working with the local police? How do you hold fraternities responsible for underage drinking without the cooperation of their national organizations?

Without high-level leadership and broad buy-in, students get mixed messages about what their college is willing to tolerate. The bookstore might stock college-licensed molds for Jell-O shots. Football stadiums may sell beer. Some colleges allow—even sponsor—blowout parties, spending serious money monitoring and cleaning up after drunk students.

Duke University was home to an all-day party known as Tailgate, which raged in a parking lot before and after every home football game. Wearing costumes, cranking up the music, and funneling beer, students left behind a mess so huge it required front-loaders to clear. Administrators tried all sorts of things—cars versus no cars, kegs versus cans, shorter and longer hours, food and entertainment—in a futile effort to rein in bad behavior.

Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, attended every Tailgate. In an oral history compiled by Duke’s student newspaper, The Chronicle, he estimated that it cost “probably hundreds of thousands of dollars” in staff time and maintenance.

“I’d say to folks, ‘You understand what you’re doing here? You’re representing the worst stereotypes of Duke. The wealthy, couldn’t-care-less, partying it up and leaving your shit on the ground so the lowest-paid employees can come and clean up after you. Doesn’t that message mean anything to you?’ It gets through when you’re sober, doesn’t get through when you’re not sober. ”

The party lasted until 2010, when a 14-year old sibling of a student was found passed out in a portable toilet. “That was the final straw,” Mr. Moneta says in an interview. Administrators finally shut it down.

Fraternities and sororities remain a third rail for many college presidents. “Even though the Greek system was identified as the highest area of risk in terms of harm and rates of drinking, we didn’t have many schools touch that,” says Lisa C. Johnson, a former managing director of the Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking. “It’s fraught with politics. It’s fraught with, Are we going to lose funding from alumni who value the traditions? Also, it’s complex because Greek houses may be owned by the fraternities, not the university.”

Dartmouth has had one of the more public struggles with its Greek system, the subject of numerous unflattering portraits. Ironically, while Dr. Kim was a national leader on the issue, at home he was perceived as going easy on fraternities and sororities, telling the campus newspaper, “I barely have any power.”

That may be changing. In April, after watching applications plummet 14 percent, Dartmouth’s new president, Philip J. Hanlon, spoke about how the college had succumbed to “extreme and harmful behaviors,” including hazing, racism, sexual assault, and dangerous drinking. The answer is “fundamental change” in the social scene, including the Greek system, he said. “Enough is enough.”

College alcohol-abuse prevention doesn’t have a powerful advocacy arm. But a dedicated group of people is determined to keep the issue on the national agenda.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which three years ago formed a committee of college-president advisers, plans to come out next year with guidelines for colleges on which interventions work well.

The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery opened this year at Ohio State University, under the direction of Mr. Clapp, who led the shuttered federal center. He secured grant money, $2-million from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, to translate alcohol research into strategies that colleges can use, he says. “The idea is to give people tools that don’t necessarily need a ton of money to implement” or “50 to 60 staff people to run.”

Some state higher-education coalitions have been working with legislators. The Maryland Collaborative to Reduce College Drinking and Related Problems, a joint effort of 11 institutions, helped establish a ban this year on the sale of extreme-strength alcohol in the state.

Several colleges have also reached the breaking point with campus events, like Duke’s Tailgate, that had spun out of control. Last year John C. Bravman, president of Bucknell University, permanently canceled its annual House Party Weekend. Once a dress-up affair, it had devolved into a multiday bender during which students urinated in public, showed up drunk to class, and got belligerent with emergency-room doctors. A few students consumed so much alcohol that doctors thought they might not survive.

Mr. Bravman laid all of this out in a brutally honest letter to the campus, arguing that he couldn’t in good conscience allow such “self-degrading” behavior to continue. It will take more than eliminating one event to curb high-risk drinking, he said in a recent interview, “but we made our point. We made a statement about the values of this institution.”

A consortium of colleges in Maryland, including the U. of Maryland at College Park, helped establish a ban this year on the sale of extreme-strength alcohol in the state.

That kind of argument helped break down resistance to increased oversight among participants in the Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking, Ms. Johnson says. “There was a lot of throwing hands up at first: ‘We don’t want a police state at our school.’ It wasn’t until they began to reframe the issue—that our institutional mission is to educate and provide a supportive learning environment”—that participating colleges saw the value in enforcement and control.

Some prevention advocates hope that scrutiny of sexual assault on campuses may result in more attention to alcohol abuse, because the connection has been well documented. It took a series of federal complaints and investigations, supporters say, for colleges to begin revising and better enforcing their sexual-assault policies.

Others are betting that money will talk. Jonathan C. Gibralter, president of Frostburg State University, calculated that alcohol abuse cost $1-million in staff time and lost tuition over a recent four-year period. Putting a price tag on the problem, he says, helps keep people motivated to crack down on off-campus parties, work with local law enforcement, and raise expectations among students.

Mr. Clapp, at Ohio State, wants to make a similar economic argument to college presidents. Those high dropout rates you’ve been wrestling with? The slacker students who study a little and party a lot? The liability risks you take allowing dangerous behaviors to go on? They’re not doing your campus any favors.

The different forces at play nationally may not be enough to focus attention on dangerous drinking in college, but culture change can happen. It’s just slow, says John Porter, director of the Center for Health and Well Being at the University of Vermont, which has grappled with alcohol abuse for more than two decades. Asked to lead a new campuswide approach to the problem, Mr. Porter remains hopeful. When he was a child, he says, he used to sit on his mother’s lap in the front seat of their Buick. She’d be smoking cigarettes. Nobody was wearing seat belts. “Today we’d be aghast,” he says.

A generation from now, will we feel the same way about binge drinking?

Correction (12/2/2014, 12:50 p.m.): This article originally misstated the name of Ohio State University’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.

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