June 8, 2007


Booze and the college student

We don’t really want to make it more traumatic than it already is for parents to say goodbye to their children when they go off to college. Yes, we did have an editorial in our May 18 issue about sex on college campuses, and this week it’s about booze. It’s just that we think that parents must be aware of what’s going on.

Alcohol and college students probably have gone together from the beginning. There’s the drinking song from “The Student Prince” at Heidelberg University in Germany. Even the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis each term gave a dinner for his students at Oxford University in England at which the alcohol flowed freely, and the object was to get drunk.

We probably will never divorce alcohol from college life. Many people consider it a relatively harmless rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood despite the fact that drinking alcohol is illegal for most of the students, those under 21.

But the problem of frequent binge drinking in colleges has reached shocking levels. One organization that has been tracking drinking on college campuses since 1993 is the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. Joseph A. Califano Jr., former U.S. secretary for health and human services, is its president and chairman.

In an article in the May 28 issue of the Jesuit magazine America, Califano reported that in 2005—the last year for which relevant data is available—half of all full-time college students binge drink, abuse prescription drugs and/or abuse illegal drugs. The proportion of students who binge drink frequently (three or more times in the past two weeks) is up 16 percent; who drink on 10 or more occasions in a month is up 25 percent; who get drunk three or more times in a month is up 26 percent; and who drink to get drunk is up 21 percent.

But it’s not just alcohol. Since the 1990s, the proportion of students who use marijuana has more than doubled. Use of drugs like cocaine and heroin is up 52 percent, and student abuse of prescription stimulants and tranquilizers has exploded.

The CASA report also notes that each year more than 1,700 students die from alcohol poisoning and alcohol-related injuries, 700,000 students are assaulted by classmates who were drinking, and almost 100,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assaults and rapes.

The entire 256-page report, titled “Wasting the Best and the Brightest,” is available on CASA’s Web site at www.casacolumbia.org.

What can parents do about this? First of all, despite these horrendous figures, it’s clear that not all college students are spending most of their nights in bars. And not all the students in bars are binge drinking despite pressure to join in drinking games. Many of our “best and brightest” are intelligent enough to drink responsibly—or not at all.

In that article in America, Califano says, “Parents bear a significant measure of responsibility. Three-fourths of college drinkers and drug users began drinking and drugging in high school or even earlier. Teen drinking and drug use is a parent problem. Parents who provide the funds for their children in college to purchase alcohol and drugs and party at substance-fueled spring breaks enable the college culture of abuse.”

We know from recent stories of serious or fatal traffic accidents involving teens that this problem exists in our high schools as well as on college campuses.

Parents must teach their children not to follow the crowd. Girls must know that they can’t keep up with the guys when it comes to drinking, and that on average one drink affects a woman about as much as two drinks for a man. We know, too, that alcohol frequently leads to sex, especially in this era of “hooking up.”

Parents should also check to see what the college their student attends is doing to prevent student use of alcohol and drugs. As the CASA report says, colleges that have facilitated or tolerated a college culture of alcohol and drug abuse have become part of the problem.

We agree with Joseph Califano that “it is time to take the ‘high’ out of higher education.”

— John F. Fink

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