As college-age drinking changes, schools shift strategies to fight it

Jenna Johnson / The Washington Post /

The bars near the University of Virginia were packed on graduation day, seniors in billowing black gowns drinking away their final few hours before entering the real world. It was 7 a.m.

Waiters and bartenders, many of whom had worked until the Saturday night shift ended a few hours earlier, shuttled pitchers of Bloody Marys, mimosas and manmosas (beer, vodka and orange juice) and poured round after round of shots: cinnamon fireballs, Southern Comfort with lime, and straight tequila.

“Sweet Caroline” blared as sorority sisters in flip-flops danced and sipped mixed drinks at the Virginian. At the Biltmore, the bouncer waved in anyone wearing commencement garb. The Pigeon Hole put out a chalkboard sign that originally read “Graduate in style!” but someone had crossed out “in style” and written “under the influence!”

At Trinity Irish Pub, students crammed onto a balcony that provided the perfect spot to look for friends and snap photos. Below, dozens more gathered on a patio, drinking on who-knows-whose bill.

“Our tab is already $400!” one student excitedly announced from atop a black metal chair at about 8:20 a.m., with another solid hour left before they were due at the ceremony. One of his friends smirked: “It’s not $500 yet?”

A 21-year-old double-major wearing a wrinkled blue button-down under his black gown defended this scene as he drank a mimosa from a plastic cup. Soon his other hand was filled with a cheap shot of vodka, bringing him to at least half a dozen drinks in less than two hours — not that he was counting.

“All of us have jobs. All of us have real majors. None of us got majors like psychology,” he said. “This is out of character, even for us. We are getting it out of our systems now, and then we will go into the real world.”

But would his parents approve of him stumbling through this symbolic day?

“I told my parents what I was doing, and they were like, ‘YOLO,’” he said with a laugh. He paused before seriously requesting that his name and identifying characteristics not appear in any article a future employer might read.

“YOLO” — you only live once — is often uttered by college students as they shrug and do something they normally wouldn’t do, such as drinking until they black out, experimenting with drugs or trying a new sexual experience.

This fall’s freshmen likely will find that the higher-education tradition of excessive alcohol consumption is alive and well, but there are new variables: Energy drink mixers keep students awake and drinking longer. A historically high number of students legally take prescribed antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs, which can be dangerous when mixed with booze.

Today’s college students, who were mostly born in the early 1990s, have cellphone cameras and social media accounts that allow for the sharing of every embarrassing turn of a disastrous night. That can lead to a painful tarnishing of reputations or the celebration of reckless behavior. And news of the latest drinking trends spreads quickly on the Web. Those trends have colored perceptions of college students, but are they that much wilder than their parents were?

What’s ‘too much’?

The scholarly standard for “too much” was long ago set at five drinks or more at least once in a two-week period. For three decades, that national binge drinking rate has hovered around 40 percent.

But college officials — the ones tasked with making sure students don’t hurt themselves or others — aren’t necessarily worried about the bulk of those students. They are concerned about the students who go out every night of the week or have dozens of drinks each month, those who occasionally drink heavily but with a lower tolerance. They worry about the black-out drunks. The violent drunks. Those who turn to alcohol and drugs instead of seeking counseling.

Alcohol is a common theme in nearly all student problems, including faltering grades, fights, injuries, suicide attempts, mental health issues and sexual assaults. A serious drinking problem could go undiagnosed for years in an environment where heavy drinking is considered the norm. These students face a more difficult path to graduation, as they are more likely to skip class, get in trouble or not study. And if they do graduate, the transition to a working world with set hours can be difficult.

“A lot of students do grow out of it,” said Susan Bruce, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Alcohol and Substance Education, “but there’s really no way to predict which ones will and which ones won’t.”

Polarized drinking

The University of Virginia has tracked student drinking rates since the 1960s. The heaviest drinking was back in the 1970s and ’80s, when parents of today’s students would have been enrolled, Bruce said. The rate is now in line with national averages.

The university has seen subtle growth at the two poles: students who don’t or hardly drink, and those who are extreme drinkers. This trend is playing out at other universities, prompting a shift in educational messaging.

Colleges have been under pressure to keep students safe since the early 1980s, when the national drinking age was increased to 21, making it illegal for half of the undergraduate population to drink. Many schools shut down campus pubs and forbid alcohol in dorms and sorority and fraternity houses.

Lawsuits and deaths pushed some schools to crack down. Students are now routinely patrolled, busted and punished by local police, campus police, “party patrol” crews that roam student neighborhoods, school judicial boards and even parents, who at a growing number of schools are now contacted when their child has any alcohol infraction. As a result, parties moved off campus.

In 2008, 130 college presidents voiced support for the Amethyst Initiative, which stated that a legal drinking age of 21 has created “a culture of dangerous, clandestine ‘binge-drinking’ — often conducted off-campus.”

In recent years, some administrators have adopted this attitude: If students are going to drink, let them do it safely. More schools have amnesty policies for students who seek help for a friend who might have alcohol poisoning. Some schools have reopened campus pubs, serve wine in the dining halls or allow over-21 students to drink in on-campus apartments.

At the University of Virginia, it has been difficult for several waves of administrators to chip away at drinking traditions. At the annual Foxfield horse races, students start drinking in the morning and go all day. At the historic Lawn, students get bombed, strip and streak naked. And there’s the “fourth-year fifth,” when some fourth-year students try to finish a fifth before kickoff at the final home football game. In 1997, a senior honors student died after drinking heavily and falling down stairs.

“This is a very dangerous decision,” University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan wrote in a letter to students. “A fifth of 80-proof liquor (17 drinks) can kill you.”

University alcohol educators have suggested ways to make the tradition safer, such as splitting a bottle between friends, subbing in wine or spreading the drinking across a weekend. But the tradition continues.

It doesn’t help that the University of Virginia is frequently named one of the top party schools in the nation. Incoming students arrive with the notion that everyone drinks heavily, and some older students feel a responsibility to keep the reputation going.

Alcohol education

Like many schools, Boston College has upped the alcohol education it offers students, along with limiting access to alcohol, focusing attention on students’ making healthy decisions, offering alcohol-free events and packing students’ schedules.

“If they’re under 21, it’s always a risky choice to make, because there are consequences. But if that’s a choice they are going to make, we want to give them some tools for doing it safely,” said Robyn Priest, associate director of BC’s office of health promotion.

Even if students find alcohol ed tedious or boring, the message usually sticks. And those messages are reiterated over time.

Outside the on-campus modular houses (known as “The Mods”) on a Friday night, Chestnut Hill swarmed with students searching for alcohol or stumbling home from having had too much. Cabs hovered near the entrance. The sound of women shouting “woooooo!” floated from an open dorm window.

A pack of guys poured out of one of the sophomore halls. One was frantically texting, as his friend impatiently asked: “Do you know of a party?” Another clarified: “Do you know of even a hint of a party?”

Inside Mod 15A, the party continued. “See how it’s really hot and super crowded? That’s a Mod party,” said a senior in jeans and a T-shirt. And this crowd is nothing, he explained, yelling and cracking open a beer. The previous weekend another group of women hosted a party in their Mod that attracted so many people, who danced so hard, that the floor sagged and needed repair.

These students said they don’t think their drinking is any heavier or lighter than that at other colleges. Students drink — sometimes too much — but it’s not a big deal, they said.

“It’s work hard, play hard,” said a 22-year-old senior. “I’ve had marathon weeks with seven nights straight, and I’ve had weeks where I drink one night.”

Just after 1 a.m., the music cut out. “Sorry, guys,” one of the hosts yelled, “party is over.”

Some students chug the rest of their drinks; others take them for the walk home. There’s a debate over whether they could get to the local dive bar before last call. Many students make their way — some swaying, arms around each other — to a dining hall that serves greasy late-night food, a service schools have begun to offer to get sustenance in the stomachs of imbibing students.

The students who threw the party begin picking up beer cans, putting furniture back into place — and de- tagging unflattering photos on Facebook.

Warnings

Within 30 minutes of new-student orientation kicking off at Frostburg State University in Maryland on a Sunday morning in June, the school’s top leader had the microphone and was talking about alcohol. He warned the group sitting before him — mostly 18-year-olds with their parents — not to get caught up in the “college effect,” the idea presented in movies and on sitcoms that going to college means drinking.

“Beyond the tragedies, what concerns me most is the loss of human potential,” said President Jonathan Gibralter, who has led the public university in Western Maryland since 2006. He paused before continuing: “Please think about that this summer. Don’t let yourselves get caught up in that world of excessive, high-risk drinking and change the story of what is possible for you at Frostburg State University.”

Frostburg used to be a major party school, a reputation coupled with tragedy. A freshman died of alcohol poisoning in 1996 after drinking at an unaffiliated fraternity’s party. Seven students were charged. Early in Gibralter’s presidency, a student punched a neighbor outside a frat party, nearly killing the man. And over the years, several students have been hospitalized after drinking too much.

Gibralter is convinced that administrators can change the drinking culture — and that they must. “There’s this impression that there’s nothing you can do about it, and that’s just wrong,” he said.

Gibralter wants to change the “college effect.” In high school, college-bound students are less likely to drink than students who don’t plan to continue their education. But during freshman year, students who already drink start to drink more, and students who never drank are likely to start. The drinking rates of those people in college are much higher than those not enrolled.

Gibralter’s wife is an alcohol educator, and he has been closely involved with national initiatives, including one recently launched by Dartmouth College that treats college drinking as a public health epidemic.

Gibralter has made reducing high-risk drinking a priority at Frostburg. He’s confident the university is making strides, as the percentage of students who binge-drink fell from 54 percent in 2006 to 41 percent last year. With that comes academic achievements: a slowly increasing retention rate, incoming students with higher academic credentials and fewer discipline problems.

Frostburg has worked to create an environment where there are many more things to do than drink. The business school now offers a full slate of Friday classes to discourage Thursday-night drinking. And the university often hosts alcohol-free dance parties that attract hundreds.

The cultural changes have not been easy or popular, Gibralter said. Even so, there are still tragedies, including one student fatally stabbed by another at an off-campus party in 2011.

“We’re only as good as our last weekend,” Gibralter said. “I never go to bed at night thinking: ‘Thank goodness. We finally solved this problem.’”