Before setting foot on Stanford’s campus, incoming freshmen must spend an hour or two completing AlcoholEdu, a program that draws the ire of many members of the freshmen class. While the creators of the much maligned AlcoholEdu program point to surveys and nationwide adoption as markers of success, the efficacy of the program is still under scrutiny.
Despite alcohol education programs at schools nationwide, colleges are reporting net increases in alcohol-related hospitalizations and increases in binge drinking. At Stanford, for instance, the average number of alcohol transports for the entire term last year took place in the first four weeks of fall quarter this year.
The Harvard Crimson reports a 43 percent increase in undergraduate drinking over the last two years, as well as an increase in the amount of undergraduate students hospitalized. An article in the Yale Daily News points to a 27% increase in drinking from 2008 to 2009.
Increases in alcohol consumption are not confined to the freshmen population alone. According to Ralph Castro, the alcohol and drug educator at Vaden, the “majority of the close to twenty [Stanford hospital] transports were comprised of upperclassmen using unsafe amounts of spirits.”
The problem of alcohol over-consumption and binge drinking was first identified about two decades ago by the 1992 Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study (CAS).
In 1993, the first CAS study found that 44% of students attending four-year colleges drank at least at the binge drinking level, a statistic that has remained relatively constant since. But it is the psychology behind the drinking that worries administrators more than the statistics themselves.
The CAS study found that 48% of surveyed students drink simply in order to get drunk. Studies have further quantifiably shown that most college kids partake in alcohol out of a desire to conform to prevailing norms.
Colleges nationwide are asking the question of how to best educate freshmen in an environment of increasing alcohol usage by students of all ages, an environment created by social norms. Stanford is struggling with the same question, especially because 63% of Stanford students surveyed, a statistic pointed out in a Stanford Daily article, engaged in negative conversation about AlcoholEdu.
Castro explained that Stanford has adopted a “multi-pronged” approach to attack alcohol issues on different levels. In the dorm, staff members work with incoming freshmen during NSO to educate and provide crucial information about safety and other resources available on campus.
Mr. Castro believes that NSO education, in conjunction with the AlcoholEdu program, establishes enough of a “baseline to allow students with a wide background, especially international students” to engage with alcohol safely.
With these programs in place for many years in some cases, university administrators naturally wonder why drinking rates have continued to rise. Does this behavioral change result from a lack of education or from a shift in cultural paradigms?
University administrators likely hope that shifting cultural paradigms are to blame for the behavior, rather than their chosen education programs. Statistics compiled by the Century Council might support their thoughts. The data point to a small decrease in binge drinking. University administrators also claim that the increase in hospitalizations is evidence of program success, as students understand the importance of calling for help when their friends are in need.
Castro also pointed to initiatives that include a “greater emphasis on education about hard alcohol” in the next iteration of AlcoholEdu and other programs aimed at increasing familiarity and exposure to the effects of alcohol consumption. Stanford is currently aiding existing education campaigns through a more active role of the Peer Health Educator (PHE) and by encouraging more frank conversations during NSO.
It is evident that university administrators are putting serious thought and policies in place to guarantee the safety of students. The increase in hospitalizations may be the fruit of their efforts to promote safe drinking, as programs teach students to dial 911 and seek emergency help. Drinking remains a significant component of the undergraduate experience—and managing the consequences of that drinking will continue to be a challenge the administrators and students face.