How to Tackle College Substance Abuse

Changing what students see as normative behavior when it comes to alcohol consumption can go far in decreasing high-risk conduct on your campus.

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.


Alcohol Enforcement, Drug & Alcohol Abuse, Features, Mental Health, Residence Hall Security, Student Health

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