Facing a Student Challenge

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It is hard to believe that summer is winding down … at least on college campuses. We have recently completed two weeks of enrichment programs for new students. Student athletes arrive in a few days to begin their pre-season training. And freshmen arrive in less than three weeks.

The return of students brings an excitement and enthusiasm as the core mission of the College … teaching and learning … takes place within our community of scholars and learners. But students also present challenges as a few exhibit behaviors that are inconsistent with college values and dangerous for their own well-being. One of these is binge drinking.

Binge drinking is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as consuming five or more drinks in less than two hours (four or more drinks for women). Most binge drinkers are not alcohol dependent. Rather, it is a behavior practiced periodically and sometimes regularly by the young and the old. For example, one in six adults binge drinks about four times per month. And for colleges, the following statistic creates a major concern. Approximately 90% of the alcohol consumed by men and women under the age of 21 is in the form of binge drinking. In other words, when they drink, they often binge.

All colleges have programs and services to address this issue. At freshmen orientation, for example, I give a talk to all new students where I graphically describe the effects of binge drinking on their personal and academic lives. We also provide training and education programs in the residence halls and through our counseling and health centers. We sponsor and host events regularly where students can (hopefully) see that they can socialize and have fun without alcohol. But the reality of binge drinking remains.

About two weeks ago, the Boston Globe ran a feature story entitled, “Dartmouth College Tackles Binge Drinking Culture.”  I typically look for ideas about addressing this problem in hopes that we can improve our programs, better serve the needs of our students, and ultimately reduce the number of binge drinkers on our campus.

According to this article, Dartmouth has experienced a significant drop in the number of students requiring hospitalization with blood alcohol levels of 0.25% (three times the legal limit to drive). This past year, 31 students were hospitalized. Two years earlier, that number was 80.

The key to the Dartmouth program is peer driven initiatives. They have increased their focus on student to student education programs and more individualized counseling and education. One idea that makes a good deal of sense to me is called the Green Team at Dartmouth College.

Dartmouth pays students to attend parties in small groups and to remain sober. These students look for ways to help other students who are drinking to excess or acting in ways that can be dangerous for them and others. They do not report these students to authorities, but rather try to help them by offering them something to eat, asking that they not be served additional drinks, and/or finding friends to take care of them for the rest of the evening. They speak to women about the risks of being with/dating a binge drinker. These actions are done as discretely as possible and seem to be well received.

No one expects to eradicate binge drinking. Sadly, alcohol consumption is as endemic to college life as it is to social life throughout America. Just attend a sporting event or a concert and watch the levels of alcohol consumption.

But we can do better in our efforts to help students make good decisions about their lives. We will always need enforcement and sanctions, but peer led programs may prove more effective. Maybe I should have a student give my speech at Orientation this year. I am willing to try anything that works.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Thursday, 24 July 2014