Confronting the Binge-Drinking Campus Culture


The Boston Globe reports that at least one college, Dartmouth, is making real progress against binge-drinking on campus. Freshmen are banned from fraternity parties for their first six weeks at school. Student-led “Green Teams” circulate at campus parties in groups of four, sober, to watch out for and steady partygoers who may be on the brink of getting drunk. Dartmouth has moved to greater enforcement of rules against drinking and students with alcohol infractions get a confidential chat about heavy drinking. The result of the new emphasis: the number of Dartmouth students hospitalized with blood-level alcohol levels of more than 0.25 percent fell to 31 this past academic year from 80 two years earlier.

One problem in imposing reforms is a simple one–a great many students do not tend to consider alcohol a danger. It is just harmless fun–the worst that can happen is getting arrested for drunken driving or underage alcohol consumption. But that is not really the worst. The worst is losing self-control and behaving in ways that jeopardize your future, your life or the lives of others.

A Boozy Decision–Was It Rape?

Rape for instance. Party drunkenness is the context out of which college rape charges usually arise.  Everyone loses track of how much alcohol is being consumed. A female may be too drunk to know whether she has consented to sex or not, and she may decide–fairly or unfairly–that it was rape the next morning.  Or, she is intoxicated to the level of unconsciousness, and whether her companion is aware of her intoxication or not – he is usually drunk himself, and hormones take over. Although criminality usually is not intended, alcoholic partying facilitates what statutes prosecute as crimes. Future job prospects of everyone involved will be damaged.

When students regularly drink too much, they cut classes and fail to study for tests. Consequently, majoring in substance abuse usually blemishes one’s academic record beyond repair and thereby damages career prospects– one of the main concerns for enrolling in college.

What’s a Party without Binging?

Anecdotal accounts as well as statistical data show that many students spend a great deal of time consuming alcohol. For a significant proportion of students, “partying”–a euphemism for long weekends of continuous alcohol consumption and occasional recreational drug use–competes successfully with academic obligations. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School wrote the following comment about partying in a letter to the New York Times:

To understand the severity of this problem, all you have to do is walk by a fraternity party at an average college campus. Partying starts on Thursday–and you must understand that partying and getting drunk are synonymous to a college student. The answer to “What did you do last night?” that is most likely to get someone to smile and pat you on the back is, “Oh man, I got so drunk.”

A surprisingly large proportion of students play drinking games such as “beer pong.” Drinking games have been around since Dionysus. But a whole new industry has taken off around them, making the games more popular, more intense and more dangerous, according to college administrators. Each year, college students spend $5.5 billion on alcohol (mostly beer).

What Harvard Found

The Harvard School of Public Health conducted rigorous statistical studies of alcohol consumption among a random sample of 14,000 college students in 1993, 1997, and 1999 financed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; 128 nationally representative four-year colleges in 39 states and the District of Columbia participated in the studies. The studies disregarded the abstainers (15 to 20 percent of students) and focused mainly on binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more for women, at least once in the two weeks before the surveys.

The researchers asked whether getting drunk was very importantimportant, or somewhat important, or not important.  The goal of getting drunk was  surprisingly popular: about half the male bingers and 40 percent of the female bingers said they drank to get drunk.

Some findings were not very surprising. More binge drinking occurred among students living in fraternity or sorority houses than in other living arrangements, more among males rather than among females, more among students who binged in high school than among students who didn’t, more among younger students than among older students, and more among single than married students.

Drinking to Get Drunk

Some findings were surprising. The prevalence of binge drinking among white students was twice as great as the prevalence among black students. Although there were some unsurprising and surprising differences in the prevalence of binge drinking, what was remarkable was that binge drinking was fairly widespread; moreover, about a third of all male students who drank had been drunk at least three times in the month prior to the survey as were about a fifth of all female students who drank. Surprisingly, the competitive, very competitive, and highly competitive colleges had similar prevalence rates and markedly higher rates than those of the noncompetitive schools. Perhaps this was due to a higher proportion of commuter schools among the noncompetitive schools, and commuter schools had lower rates, probably because the students lived at home under parental supervision.

Nevertheless, a great deal of self-destructive drinking behavior occurs among American college students at almost all colleges, including religiously oriented ones and highly selective ones. When the samples were divided into occasional binge drinkers–those who binged only once or twice in the two weeks preceding the surveys–and frequent binge drinkers–those who binged three times or more in that time frame, the frequent binge drinkers reported more problems: missing a class, falling behind in school work, doing something they regretted, arguing with friends, engaging in unplanned sexual activities and not using a condom, damaging property, getting in trouble with the campus or local police, getting personally injured, drunk driving, and requiring medical treatment for an alcohol overdose. Of the frequent bingers, 57 percent drove vehicles while drunk, and 54 percent were so drunk that they could not remember where they had been or what they had done while binging. In addition to the problems that their binging behavior created for themselves, secondhand binge effects were experienced by non-binge drinkers and abstainers who happened to live in the same dormitories or fraternity or sorority residences with the bingers: being interrupted while studying or being awakened at night (58%), having to take care of a drunken fellow student (50%), and being insulted or humiliated (29%). About 77 percent of the non-binge drinkers and abstainers experienced at least one secondhand effect.

A Majority of Bingers

Consider only the 11,160 college student drinkers–that is, ignore abstainers. Among college student drinkers, about 45 percent did not binge and were probably mostly moderate drinkers, although some may have gotten drunk occasionally. A majority of the student drinkers in the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study were binge drinkers, either occasional (2,962) or frequent (3,135). It is difficult to comprehend how these frequent binge drinkers could have gotten much intellectual education while at college.

Hoping that students today will pursue knowledge single-mindedly at college is unrealistic. They are entitled to some fun. Unfortunately, however, many students enroll in college believing that attending college is similar to going to a summer camp. Orientation sessions for incoming students should provide two pieces of crucial advice:

  • It is almost impossible, even for highly intelligent students, to amass an academic record impressive to corporate recruiters if they are intoxicated during days when they should be attending classes or evenings when they should be studying.
  • When students becomes so drunk at a party that they are no longer in control of their own behavior, hormones take over.  They may engage in sexual behavior that destroys their career prospects irrevocably.


  • Jackson Toby

    Jackson Toby is professor of sociology emeritus at Rutgers University, where he was director of the Institute for Criminological Research. He is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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One thought on “Confronting the Binge-Drinking Campus Culture”

  1. Fascinating and thoughtful.
    However, I wonder what the drinking habits of this age cohort are like in France, Belgium, Holland, and Italy. I expect people in these countries to be mellower drinkers, and I would wonder why.

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