Why Students Drink
Although we think of college as a time when young adults experiment with alcohol, the college years are rarely the first time students have faced decisions about alcohol. According to the nationally representative Monitoring the Future Study, in 2012, 42 percent of high school seniors reported having had alcohol (more than just a few sips) within 30 days prior to the survey, and 24 percent reported binge drinking within the previous two weeks. Moreover, 91 percent of seniors said that it would be fairly easy or very easy for them to obtain alcohol.
Although alcohol use begins before students arrive at college, pressure to misuse alcohol may be intensified when a student starts college and is interacting with new peers, is exposed to new norms about alcohol use, and parents are less present. In high school, those seniors who are college-bound are less likely to report heavy drinking than their classmates who don't plan to go on to college. Once students arrive on campus, however, they "catch up to and pass" the young adults who do not attend college (Johnston et al., 2003).
This is not surprising given that college students are in a life stage characterized by risk and testing their limits to find out who they are, living in a relatively unregulated environment surrounded by same age peers (Arnett, 2000). The transition to college is a critical time for parents to intervene and work to prevent alcohol misuse (Wood et al., 2004).
In some cases, students arrive at the University with drinking problems that have reached the level of addiction. Parents are often unaware of the drinking habits their student has developed, and the University has no way of screening for alcohol use during the college admissions process. Nevertheless, we know we will be working with some freshmen every year who have long-standing patterns of drinking.
The transition to college requires major changes in every aspect of a student's life. Students are looking for new friends who will provide support and intimacy, and they are working to develop their identity as college students (Bosari & Carey, 2001). It can be helpful to consider alcohol use and heavy drinking in relation to the developmental stages young adults are encountering (Schulenberg & Maggs, 2002). Certainly, there are variations in how different students react to the changes they face and their methods of coping, but some increases during college are part of developmental stages that potentially could be viewed as serving some positive purposes along with negative ones (Schulenberg et al., 2001).
Young adults are thinking about how others perceive them. It may be that students acquire ideas (from media and through social norms) that drinking moderate to large amounts in college will make them more fun and exciting to their peers. Adults and students alike participate in behaviors that they have the most positive attitudes towards (Lange et al., 2002). In college there is often support from peers for drinking; and the more a student perceives others as drinking heavily or approving of heavy alcohol use, the more likely a student is to drink heavily (Bosari & Carey, 2001). Fortunately college is also a time when young people start to think about the consequences of alcohol use (Korn & Maggs, 2004), and they become better able to make responsible decisions.
What We Know
What do we know about the relationship between alcohol use in high school and alcohol use in college?
A number of risk factors during a student's senior year in high school have been identified: (Schulenberg et al., 1996)
Risk factors for binge drinking:
- lower GPA
- higher levels of antisocial behavior
- drinking to get drunk
- drinking to cope
- expecting future use of alcohol
- quantity of time spent with friends
However, it's important to keep in mind that many young people consider college drinking normal and temporary. Consequently, we can't accurately predict significant increases or decreases in binge drinking during the college years and beyond. Even dangerous levels of drinking during the college years do not always indicate a long-term problem with alcohol use. In fact, we cannot predict problems with alcohol in adulthood from one's peak level of binge drinking during college (Schulenberg et al., 2001).
Critical Social Decisions
One student talks about how his experiences changed from high school to college:
"High school was more of a social factor altogether. You know you're there, you get to hang out with all your friends during passing times and lunch. Most of high school is just busy work to keep you going. Where college is more just test and exam, what you need to know, less of the busy work, which means they can cut down on the time required to be in the classroom. And a detriment to that is that they give you more rope to hang yourself with in a college setting. So here it's less busy work, but the work does get harder, and that cuts into social time...so it's up to you to choose how much social life you have compared to your study time."
No matter what a student's high school drinking record was, one of the first and most critical social decisions that he or she will make at the University relates to alcohol. Nearly all students will encounter alcohol at some point, whether they use it themselves or deal with a roommate, a friend, or a neighbor who is drinking. It's important for parents and students to keep in mind that choosing whether or not to drink is not a one-time decision. Students will have multiple opportunities nearly every weekend to attend parties where alcohol is served, and they will be making a choice every time an opportunity comes up.
Many parents are deeply concerned if they learn their student has engaged in so-called risky behaviors. For college students, though, participating in some risky behaviors such as drinking alcohol does not necessarily result in problems for students' long-term academic success (Schulenberg et al., 1997). It is important to consider behaviors in the broader context of the student's life and development. For example, if the risky behavior takes place in the context of a group of highly motivated and otherwise physically and emotionally healthy young people, it is unlikely that the risky behavior will, in and of itself, have extremely negative consequences. In contrast, if the risky behavior is part of a broader syndrome or "pattern" of negative or dangerous behaviors then the risky behavior is likely to indicate a problem that may even require treatment or intervention (Eckert, 1989; Jessor & Jessor, 1977).
Socially Desirable Images
People are motivated to behave in ways that will project socially desirable images of themselves. Concerns about peer acceptance, social approval, and having an image that you're "one of the crowd" may be particularly strong determinants of drinking behavior among college students. The most frequently desired impressions that motivate first-year students to drink alcohol are "cool/laid back" and "fun/social". Seventy-five percent of first-year college students report performing at least one risky behavior (most commonly alcohol use) during their first semester in order to "fit in".
"You learn that if you don't drink, it's kinda like, 'Oh she's not having fun.' They look down on you. If you do drink, it's like you're more open to be more social and people are, 'OK, she's one of us, she's more into socializing.' That kind of thing."
Students who report being introverted, lonely, or having low self esteem might be expected to drink alcohol to present themselves as fun and exciting. But these expectancies have not been found to determine drinking behavior among this group of students.
The more students drink, the more likely they will suffer negative consequences. Those consequences can range in severity from having a hangover, performing poorly on a test, or missing class to getting into an argument or fight, driving under the influence, being hurt or injured, or being taken advantage of sexually.
2009-2011 Core survey (see page 7 of 8) [PDF]
2012 Boynton College Student Health survey (see page 31 of 60) [PDF]
When students experience more positive alcohol effects one week, they consume more alcohol the following week. However, the experience of negative alcohol effects does not predict reduced binge drinking the next week (Schulenberg et al., 2001).
Not all individuals who drink experience negative consequences, and not all individuals who experience negative consequences are going to experience them every time they drink. The experience of negative consequences, then, is going to be based, at least in part, on factors other than drinking (Lange et al., 2002).
Students sometimes drink because they think alcohol makes it easier to meet other people, relaxes their social inhibitions, and helps them have more fun. When asked whether they believe alcohol has the following effects, the percentages below indicate the rates of college students who answered "yes" (CORE, 2011).
- Breaks the ice: 74.4%
- Enhances social activity: 74.4%
- Gives people something to do: 71.7%
- Gives people something to talk about: 66.6%
- Allows people to have more fun: 63.1%
- Facilitates male bonding: 60.1%
- Facilitates a connection with peers 61.7%
- Facilitates sexual opportunities: 53.0%
- Facilitates female bonding: 28.8%
- Makes women sexier: 28.8%
- Makes food taste better: 22.7%
- Makes me sexier: 20.4%
- Makes men sexier: 19.9%
This student describes how her reasons for drinking changed from her freshman year to her senior year:
"It seems more like I go out now to catch up old friends, people I maybe haven't seen in, you know, a month or two. Like, Hey, let's meet for a drink' kinda thing. Um I think the biggest reason when I was younger was to meet new people. And it still is, but now I think it's more to kind of hang out with those people that I've already met. You know, uh...I'm trying to think like what was the positive of last night, you know. Like, just spending time with people who are kind of important and being able to do it. And now that I'm old enough to do it legally, you know? That's a positive now."
Please consider the following:
Think about your own decisions related to alcohol: If you choose to drink, are there times when alcohol helps you relax or when alcohol is helpful socially? If you choose not to drink, what responses do you get from others?