The impacts of excessive and underage drinking — as well as other types of substance abuse — are present in college communities across the country.
Preventing or reducing instances of substance abuse is a matter of changing your campus environment to discourage this behavior and correcting student misperceptions about drinking. This can be achieved by consistently enforcing relevant policies and providing adequate assistance to students in need.
Some colleges and universities have taken this a step further by altering their campuses to meet the needs of students in recovery. This can include removing triggers from the campus environment — such as alcohol or drug paraphernalia and alcohol-related campus activities — or even creating a specific program for students in recovery.
Shed the Party School Image
In 2001, the Princeton Review named the University of Tennessee as the number one party school in the United States. For the university's Knoxville campus, the ranking was a wakeup call.
At that time, University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) officials found that student partying behaviors were "above regional norms and [the university] had some high-risk drinking rates that were counterproductive to some of [its] goals and missions," says Dan Reilly, the director of UTK's Safety, Environment & Education (SEE) Center.
To combat these behaviors and other problems associated with the college lifestyle, the university formed the SEE Center in 2005. UTK saw its largest decrease in high risk drinking and the frequency of high risk drinking within a year of the center's founding. Reilly attributes this to the center's programs, which incorporate environmental management — such as limiting access to alcohol on campus — and population-level approaches, which target specific populations on campus, such as students living in residence halls.
Similarly, St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minn., has battled its reputation as a party school through the development of a collaborative program between the school and its surrounding community.
"In 2008, students were reporting that they were having five or more drinks in a sitting — which is considered the definition of binge drinking — in the last two weeks," says Phillip Hernandez, St. Cloud's coordinator of leadership programs and residential life conduct. "That's 16 percent above the national norm."
Since then, St. Cloud has increased penalties for students who violate the alcohol policy and removed alcohol paraphernalia from campus events. The university is also in the process of developing a residential-based recovery program for students with substance abuse issues.
Target High-Risk Behaviors First
St. Cloud's Assistant Dean of Students for Chemical Health and Outreach Programming, Robert Reff, "has worked diligently to manage high risk drinking," says Hernandez. When approaching the problem of student substance abuse, Reff "always says, 'the forest is burning, so what trees do I put out?' So he began working on the high risk behavior first," explains Hernandez.
Reff's efforts have reduced student binge drinking at the university to three percent below the national average. He collaborated with the city police department and the court system to change the way underage student drinkers were penalized.
"Previously, when underage students were drinking they would get a ticket from the police and then they would pay that ticket - I think it was about $130 — and they wouldn't have to go to court," says Hernandez. "That would happen almost regardless of how many times the [behavior] was occurring, so a student could get three or four [tickets] and still be penalized the same amount."
Now, students receive a long form complaint from the city requiring them to appear before a judge or enter a diversion program sponsored by the university that includes alcohol education. Additionally, Reff worked with the city to enact a social host ordinance so that people who host parties where underage students consume alcohol can be penalized by a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail.
Likewise, UTK has focused its efforts on putting policy violators into its diversion program.
"The first thing we looked at was making sure the majority of people who violate the alcohol policy were identified and referred to the program," says Reilly. "You can have the best diversion program in the country, but if the appropriate individuals are not being assigned to it, you're not going to have success."
UTK utilizes population-level interventions to combat substance abuse on its campus. These interventions "recognize that where you typically see improvement is in a small change to a large percent of your population," Reilly says. In other words, it is not as effective to tell individuals to consume less alcohol as it is to introduce statistics promoting healthy practices to an entire community. Those statistics could cause large groups of students to think differently about their drinking habits.
"If you can do some interventions which make a small change to the majority of folks on campus, what you're doing there is changing the campus culture...you're actually changing the environment rather than changing the individuals," Reilly adds.
Change the Campus Culture
According to Roderick Shaner, the medical director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, "One of the most commonly cited contributors to substance abuse problems is immersion in a culture that is tolerant of, or even expects, heavy substance abuse."
An effective college substance abuse prevention program, he says, will "create a culture in which binge drinking and drug use is neither normative nor promoted."
In an effort to alter its campus culture, St. Cloud has sought to eliminate triggers from campus life that might affect students recovering from chemical dependency or other addiction issues.
St. Cloud does not allow root beer kegs or "mocktails" — mock cocktails — at campus events, and clubs are not allowed to give away cups as promotional items. In addition, gambling-related events are not permitted on campus.
The exception, says Hernandez, is mocktails that are provided with an alcohol education component by the university's UChoose program. The program - a campus prevention effort focusing on the reduction of high risk alcohol use - utilizes empirically based theories and approaches to correct misperceptions about alcohol use on campus and reduce harm.
Data collected by UTK showed that students "thought [other] students drank a lot more than they actually did," says Reilly. The result was that students often had a skewed perception of how much alcohol they should drink and how often.
"We did a high dose, multiple outlets social norming campaign to correct misperceptions of high risk drinking or correct misperceptions of how many people are partaking in it," he says. The campaign resulted in a notable reduction of high risk drinking on campus, according to Reilly.
Regular Enforcement Results In Better Behavior
Data also showed that students who lived on the UTK campus did not see the alcohol policy being regularly enforced. Therefore, they did not take the policies as seriously as they should.
To change this, UTK remodeled its resident advisor (RA) training to include a segment on consistent enforcement.
"We wanted to look at it from the RA's perspective," explains Reilly. "They really don't take the job — for the most part — to be policy enforcers. They want to be mentors and community builders.
"We obtained data to show that consistent enforcement would actually allow them to achieve the things that they wanted to achieve through being a RA, and inconsistent enforcement would subsequently do just the opposite."
The results were positive and widespread, according to Reilly: "We had good data that supported that our students' perceptions of enforcement went from about 50 percent up to about 75 percent since implementing that training."
"Colleges have learned there are a number of things that help students make proper choices about using drugs [and drinking], and help them find effective help for substance abuse when they need it," says Shaner.
One of the most important ways to effectively address the needs of students with substance abuse issues, he adds, is "to establish clear standards and expectations regarding the use of recreational substances on and off campus."
Hernandez believes "the culture has changed with the enforcement of underage drinking," on St. Cloud's campus through cooperation with the city police and court system. In addition, campus security officers enforce campus alcohol policy while "acting as a liaison between...our campus and the city police," he adds.
Move Past Prevention to Recovery
St. Cloud is currently working to implement a residential-based program for students in recovery, which could potentially be housed in a residence hall or an off-campus building.
"We are looking to do more support for recovery because I think the typical story is students will identify that they have a problem and...then get off campus treatment," says Hernandez. "But once they're done with that, it's a difficult choice for them to return to campus - because of all the triggers, or previous lifestyle or just not having the resources or a safe place for them."
The university formed a committee of administrators and faculty to tour colleges around the country that already have recovery programs in place. "We're getting all the information from really successful programs, seeing what they have in common, what works for them, what we can translate here at St. Cloud," explains Hernandez. "If we're going to do this and open up a program for students in recovery we certainly want to do it right."
Hernandez says he believes recovery housing should incorporate some type of 12 step program and counseling. In addition, he says, "you have to be very strict about making sure you're dismissing students who begin to relapse... It's important that the people there are committed to being sober and have stability in their recovery. Relapse is often part of recovery, but this isn't the community for them."
According to Shaner, there are many elements that can make up a good recovery program - but there is no one formula that fits.
"Among the elements common to many treatment programs is developing motivation, providing peer support, creation of alternative methods of coping with problems, and developing new and more adaptive ways of interacting with others and finding personal satisfaction," Shaner explains.
Find What Program is Right For Your Campus
"There are hundreds of things that can work based on campus specifics but there are thousands of things that don't work. So that's always the challenge," says Reilly.
Reilly explains that UTK revamped its alcohol policies and means of enforcement only after conducting thorough research.
"I think first of all you need to do good data collection to find out where the issues are on your campus," he says. "You can design or emulate really powerful programs but they might not meet the needs of your campus...Secondly, you should do some strategic planning to review the data and then devise interventions specific to that data."
UTK has collected data on student drinking through the school year. The university will hold a strategic planning meeting in early summer to review the data and make changes to campus policies as needed.
Hernandez says St. Cloud's decision to introduce recovery housing is linked to the larger goal of creating a more conscientious campus community.
"I think having a recovery program that is residential will be a good reminder for our students...that there are students in recovery living with them," he says. "This program can help start the conversation about high risk drinking and the impact that it has on the community."
How to Address Substance Abuse on Your Campus
No one formula will fit the needs of every college or university. It is important that you develop a program that will best address the issues specific to your campus:
1. Collect data. What high risk behaviors are your students participating in? How often?
2. Create policies or programs to address the problems demonstrated by your data. These can include environmental management or population-level interventions.
3. Enforce your policies. Train campus security officers, resident advisors or other relevant personnel to deal with policy violations in a consistent manner.
4. Train campus staff to recognize potential substance abuse problems and reach out to those students accordingly.
5. Provide helpful, up-to-date information and intervention to students who seek assistance for potential problems.
6. Partner with relevant agencies to coordinate treatment for students who require it.
The Effects of High-Risk Drinking in Colleges Each Year:
1,825 students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related injuries
696,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has consumed alcohol
97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape
110,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are arrested for alcohol-related violations
3,360,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 drive under the influence of alcohol