Dry Campuses–A Solution to Binge-drinking or Not?

A recent study by Harvard’s School of Public Health concludes that a third of
all American campuses are now officially “dry”–no beer or booze allowed for
students. This policy has drawn a lot of support from those who believe it
creates communities less focused on drinking. But opponents claim it forces
binge-drinking underground, restricts student freedom, and probably will prove
no more effective than the original Prohibition of 1919 to 1933.

The arguments that a ban
encourages off-campus drinking certainly seem to hold true at my university,
which proudly touts its dryness and the low percentage of students who drink.
However, those who do drink often walk long distances to go to parties (driving
is not so much an issue in a city like DC) and also tend to favor
binge-drinking when drinking on campus because pounding a few shots quickly
seems easier to hide than slowly sipping a beer.

A claim to be “dry” is
no assurance that there is actually no risk of alcohol abuse on campus. I
learned very quickly that American University is no drier than most schools. A
friend tells this story:he and his
mother were leaving a campus tour, run by a guide who had extolled the benefits
of a dry campus. Walking behind two students, they overheard one talking about
calling a roommate to fill a bathtub with gin for a party that night. While
this particular friend was not bothered much by this conversation, his mother
seriously reconsidered AU as a choice.

I’m sure there are schools that are much more
effective at actually enforcing a dry campus policy–my guess is this happens
when students who don’t drink self-select for “dry” schools, whereas most AU
students are here for other reasons. However, when this isn’t the case, the
claim to be “dry” can be incredibly misleading.Not all parents get the sort of real insight
my friend’s mom did. By disguising and ignoring the very real problem of binge-drinking, we limit our ability to deal with the consequences. This is not only
a problem for current students, but also those prospective students who may
actually be seeking a community with low exposure to alcohol and may be misled
by the proud claims of the school that “we’re a dry campus.” 

This could be seen as an
enforcement problem on the part of AU, but I’ve heard of similar problems at
other schools of questionable dryness. There is a general attitude of
half-heartedness to the official policy. Everyone here knows that the campus is
indeed quite wet, but it’s just not talked about. Beyond the more nebulous
issues associated with such a culture of denial, there is a lack of clarity
about the actual consequences of the alcohol ban. The process that generally
occurs is rather fair and forgiving. Consequences depend a good deal on
consultation with a health counselor who focuses on treating students with real
issues and encouraging safe practices. This seems appropriate. The issue here
is not how individual students are treated, but rather the incentives being
created. This process is long and often described as annoying and burdensome,
but rarely actually painful. This is enough to encourage stealth and the issues
that accompany this mindset that I mentioned earlier, but not quite enough to
dissuade the student set on throwing the party of the year.

Whatever policy a university
chooses, it should stick to it. The gray area created by wishful policies like
the one at AU creates not only confusion, but also many problems that could be avoided
with a little bit of honesty. When scouting colleges for safety, parents are
warned to look out for vague or elusive answers.A policy that isn’t well defined is
considered a flag for lax enforcement. While this isn’t always true, it might
be worth considering for any school in regards to alcohol and drug policy. As
much as the spectrum of opinions differs, so do the policies, but one
characteristic that would surely help every policy is a clear definition and an
understanding between all parties concerned. Students, administration and
parents should be on the same page, and the scouting student (or parent) should
be able to tell what their choice will mean.

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Alex McHugh

Alex McHugh works in communications for the American Council for Trustees and Alumni.

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