Does Studying Abroad Increase Alcohol Consumption?

According to a University of Washington study, alcohol abuse issues are more common when students study abroad than when on their home campus in the United States.

The study surveyed 177 college students who participated in study abroad programs, who completed surveys pre and post-departure on the volume of their drinking.

The study estimates a 105% average increase in drinking. Furthermore, it indicated that students who reported drinking heavily while abroad continued to drink heavily when they returned home. At some particular study abroad destinations, drinking as much as doubled for students.

Eric Pedersen, one of the lead researchers of the study, said, “Many factors, including a decrease in legal drinking age, geographic location, student intentions and expectations about their study abroad experience, and their perceptions of the norms influence students’ experiences with alcohol when abroad.”

This alarming rate of increased drinking could be a cause for concern, especially when coupled with the fact that by 2016, a million students every year will be studying abroad (about 1 in every 18 students), according to the Institute of International Education.

Pedersen explained that this research is a “small study, with a small sample.” 218 students completed the pre-departure survey, and only 177 students participated in the post-departure survey.  Such a small sample, from a school of over 27,000 undergraduates, can easily skew the results of this study.

Despite the small sample size, Pedersen felt that this study could be generalized to other students as well.  He said, “Our findings match what reports in the media and psychologists have been saying, but there is still a lot of research that needs to be done.”

Stanford Effects

Although the 177 UW students surveyed may fairly represent the population of students at UW who study abroad, they may not be so representative of students at Stanford.****

“In my experience, people drink substantially less while abroad,” said Libby Cummings ’12, a Human Biology major.  Cummings is currently studying in Berlin through the Bing Overseas Studies Program (BOSP).  She also noted that, “[students abroad] are more likely to have one or two drinks every day rather than drinking a lot just one or two nights a week.”

Evelyn Danforth ’12, a history major studying in Santiago through BOSP, echoed Cummings’ sentiments as well.  “I actually think people drink abroad in much healthier ways,” she said.

Jonathan Gelbart ’11 studied abroad in Moscow during 2008 and found that drinking did not increase while abroad, largely due to the price of alcohol.  “You have to consider the effect of money.  If you want alcohol abroad, you can buy it yourself – but you have to pay for it.”

Cummings cited expenses, cultural differences, and safety as reasons for students to limit alcohol consumption while abroad.  “The culture here doesn’t support being [drunk] nearly as much as the culture at college.”  Additionally, she said that “meeting strangers at a bar or club while extremely drunk is a pretty bad idea.”

According to Gelbart, Danforth, and Cummings, the Bing Overseas Study Program did not address the subject of alcohol in orientation meetings.

An anonymous student who studied abroad through Stanford noted,  “Stanford alcohol policies are so relaxed on campus that students do not feel the need to go crazy over a lower drinking age abroad.”

Students may travel abroad for many reasons, but most agree that there is a profound educational value associated with studying abroad.  Gelbart said, “There is immense value in seeing what life is like in other parts of the world.”  Danforth noted the “cultural and holistic experience” of studying abroad as a significant eye-opener to the world outside of her own.

Although Pedersen didn’t compile statistics from the studies about how much educational value studying abroad brought to each student, he reported that “because studying abroad and cultural immersion was so important to the students, they wanted to fully experience it. Whether this meant drinking more alcohol or drinking, the students valued the overall experience more than the allure of partying hard as often as possible.”

Whatever educational significance studying abroad represents for students, Cummings said, “[Students] want to get the most out of [their] experience, and [being drunk] won’t help [them] do that.”

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