Alcohol use in higher education: Dissecting the college drinking culture
When it comes to alcohol consumption at institutions of higher learning, it’s important to understand that college drinking isn’t just a fad: It’s a culture that’s been enabled and propped up for decades, to the point that it’s expected and encouraged … and as a result, it can cause serious problems.
That’s not to say that every student who takes part in the college drinking culture is going to wind up an alcoholic — far from it. But no one who develops a drinking problem ever picks up for the first time thinking it might be a possibility. However, repeated studies have shown that “Undergraduate students who believe that alcohol plays a central role in college life are prone to drink more frequently, in larger quantity, and experience more drinking problems,” according to a 2019 article in the Journal of Counseling Psychology .
And sometimes, those problems can linger long after graduation. College drinking culture is indeed a rite of passage, and one that many students grow out of, but some — none of them ever intending to do so — discover that they have no “off” switch. Don’t take our word for it, however: A 2004 study on the short-term and long-term effects of college binge drinking followed up on a probability sample of 1972-era college students in 1984 and 1994. The findings? 
“As expected, college binge drinkers were comparatively more likely than nonbinge drinkers to experience one or more alcohol-related problems while in college. In addition, weighted estimates of … diagnostic criteria … indicated that the binge drinking patterns exhibited during the college years, for some former college students of both genders, posed significant risk factors for alcohol dependence and abuse 10 years after the initial interview.”
College Drinking Culture: The Statistics
So how prevalent is participation in the college drinking culture?
- The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that  “according to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 54.9 percent of full-time college students ages 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the past month, and 36.9 percent engaged in binge drinking in the past month.” (Binge drinking defined: five or more drinks on one occasion for men and four for women, or a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration [BAC] “to 0.08 percent — or 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter — or higher. For a typical adult, this pattern corresponds to consuming 5 or more drinks [male], or 4 or more drinks [female], in about 2 hours.”)
- Also from the NIAAA: “In addition, 9.6 percent engaged in heavy alcohol use (defined by NSDUH as binge drinking on 5 or more days in the past month).”
- Both statistics are higher for those attending colleges than peers of a corresponding age who aren’t attending college — another sign that college drinking culture contributes to the increased consumption.
- Furthermore, the NIAAA reports that “drinking by college students ages 18 to 24 contributes to an estimated 1,519 student deaths each year. In addition, there are an estimated 696,000 assaults by students who had been drinking and 97,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape each year.”
- Drinking can have a negative effect on academic performance as well, according to the federal website College Drinking Prevention : “In a national survey, college students who binge drank alcohol at least three times per week were roughly six times more likely to perform poorly on a test or project as a result of drinking (40 percent vs. 7 percent) than students who drank but never binged. The students who binge drank were also five times more likely to have missed a class (64 percent vs. 12 percent).”
- Also from College Drinking Prevention: According to a 2019 national survey, “Around 9 percent of full-time college students ages 18 to 22 meet the criteria for past-year Alcohol Use Disorder,” the clinical definition of alcoholism.
- A survey of 2,000 college students by the online youth publication The Tab  found that “On average, freshmen and sophomores consume around 14 drinks per week, juniors bridge the gap at 17, while seniors and graduate students consume a whopping 19 drinks per week.”
In other words, Tab writers continue, the data makes a strong case for the idea that “college turns you into an alcoholic. It makes sense when you think about it. Drinking during your freshman year is an exercise in freedom, where the alcohol tastes like the 8 a.m. class you don’t plan on attending in the morning. You reek of optimism and inexperience as you stumble home from the bar at 2am.
“As a senior, you drink to forget the pain of impending unemployment. You’re equipped with a camouflaged liver and the tolerance of someone who has been binge-drinking for years — because you have been.”
So What Makes It a ‘Culture?’
Given the prevalence of statistics that demonstrate just how problematic the college drinking culture is, it’s important to understand what causes it.
There are a number of different reasons, but most of them amount to the same thing: still-developing young minds granted previously unknown amounts of freedom, away from home and the restrictions of childhood under the roof of a parent. That doesn’t mean every student who goes to college away from home is going to be slamming back shots of tequila on night one, but it does mean that the availability of alcohol, the perceived lack of oversight and the “everybody else is doing it” attitudes that are widespread on college campuses often lead a number of undergraduates to willingly and enthusiastically choose to take part in that college drinking culture.
And as author Sarah Hepola told NPR’s Terry Gross for the program “Fresh Air,”  that culture is presented through popular culture with an allure that’s almost mesmerizing. Hepola, whose memoir “Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget” details her battle with alcohol, talked at length with Gross about how booze allowed her to shed the trappings of self-consciousness, something a great many young college students struggle with as they begin to discover who they are as individuals in charge of their choices, often for the first time:
“It was the way that I got off the couch. I sometimes feel like if I hadn’t been a drinker, I would still be on the couch watching television underneath a blanket. And it was like alcohol pushed me out into the world. But yeah, I mean, of course it was also reinforced by movies, by television, by people I saw in life, you know, by older kids. It just seemed like when you added alcohol to an evening, amazing things happened.”
Robert Yagoda, writing in 2016 for U.S. News and World Report , puts it another way: “Many new students struggle to find a solid group of friends and, in order to fit in, they may put themselves in dangerous situations. According to a 2011 study, nearly 75 percent of college students reported drinking to break the ice and enhance social activity. In other words, meeting new people can be difficult, and drinking helped students come out of their shells.”
It’s important to note that there’s no imaginary line of demarcation that incoming college students cross once they enroll in school that suddenly makes them compelled to drink. After all, the NIAAA points out , a number of students already have experience with alcohol — but “certain aspects of college life, such as unstructured time, the widespread availability of alcohol, inconsistent enforcement of underage drinking laws, and limited interactions with parents and other adults, can intensify the problem.”
What are those “certain aspects of college life”? Yagoda elaborates :
- Drinking often goes hand-in-hand with college sports: “On campus, pre-gaming and tailgating before a game is common practice. The accepted behavior sets a dangerous scene for students who may drink in excess for two to three hours before a game, continue drinking during the game and then party even harder when the game is over.”
- Greek life is practically built around the college drinking culture and often encourages those who may drink in moderation to do so heavily: “When individuals who may already have an established pattern of drinking join a group that practically condones heavy drinking as part of rituals and activities, the consequences can be disastrous.”
- Pre-college drinking can set the stage for problems later on: According to a 2015 study published in the Journal on Alcohol and Drugs , “Youth who sipped alcohol by sixth grade had significantly greater odds of consuming a full drink, getting drunk, and drinking heavily by ninth grade than nonsippers.” In other words, children who are permitted or even encouraged to take a sip by parents or other adults are actually already at “elevated odds of risky behaviors at high school entry,” and even more so at college.
So Why Does the College Drinking Culture Persist?
For many students, drinking isn’t just a rite of passage — it’s a right, period, and one that’s often condoned, tacitly or overtly, by authorities. Consider the case of Syracuse University, which was crowned the nation’s No. 1 “party school” in 2014 by the Princeton Review. According to the SU campus newspaper , “Soon after the No. 1 ranking in 2014, the Castle Court (the center of SU student residence and nightlife) was barred from hosting large parties after complaints from the university and the Syracuse Police Department. Despite the ban, parties continued at Castle Court with little intervention from police.”
Tradition often plays a large role in the continuation of college drinking culture on many campuses as well, according to a 2014 article in The New York Times : “At some colleges, presidents are reluctant to take on boosters and alumni who fervently defend rituals where drinking can get out of control. Administrators responsible for prevention often are not equipped with the community-organizing skills to get local politicians, bar owners and the police to try new approaches, enforce laws and punish bad actors.”
Perhaps most alarming, according to Beth Mcmurtrie in that Times article, is that “colleges continue to treat alcohol abuse as an individual problem, one that can be fixed primarily through education.” In other words: It’s much easier, and less administratively problematic, to assign blame to the individual rather than taking a harder look at the college drinking culture itself that exists on many campuses.
“Institutions of higher education are still really committed to the idea that if we just provide the right information or the right message, that will do the trick, despite 30 or 40 years of research that shows that’s not true,” Robert F. Saltz, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evalution’s Prevention Research Center, told Mcmurtrie. “The message isn’t what changes behavior. Enforcement changes behavior.”
Steps have been taken by some college administrators, according to Andy Earle, writing in 2020 for Scientific American , especially through the use of “Personalized Normative Feedback, or PNF. The theory behind this practice is that when students are exposed to the true rate of alcohol consumption at their school, they will change their own drinking habits to bring their behavior in line with their new understanding of the norm.” How does it work? “Typically, a college PNF program involves asking students to estimate the percentage of their classmates they believe drink on a regular basis. Once the students answer, they are given the true percentage, as determined by nationally representative surveys, along with a graph to help them appreciate the difference between their guess and the reality. More often than not, these graphs reveal that the respondents’ initial figure was much too high.”
However, Earle points out, the problem is that the students with the biggest drinking problems are the ones most resistant to change, so while studies show a small to moderate reduction in student’s future alcohol use by way of PNF, those gains aren’t what they could be when “The heavier drinkers among them, who tend to think of alcohol as a large part of their identity, are particularly likely to see PNF as a threat to their freedom and to resist change.”
Other campuses have set up peer facilitator programs designed to encourage students “to shift their drinking behaviors using one of many emerging interventions designed and tested by psychologists,” according to the American Psychological Association . “The approaches address why a student drinks and are tailored for specific populations of students, such as athletes and freshmen. Some interventions are targeted to align with specific events, such as 21st birthday celebrations, as a way to reroute dangerous decisions made on a night that notoriously gets out of control.”
Other institutions have taken efforts to remove students who self-identify as problem drinkers or have already gotten sober from the college drinking culture itself: Boston College, for example, offers “housing specific to those in recovery,” , as well as “individual counseling and psychotherapy, consultation, and self-help assistance.” And some universities, like Maryville College, require incoming freshman to take an alcohol awareness online course as part of orientation. According to MC , “AlcoholEdu is not a values-based course but is, instead, a factual presentation about the effects of blood alcohol content on physical, social, and mental functioning.”
In Closing …
Alcohol has long been associated with college life, and that’s not likely to change any time soon. As Valerie Strauss writes for The Washington Post  in discussing how much students drink: “If you talk to any college student, or to anybody who knows a college student, or to anybody who has every walked past a college student, you know the answer is a lot. A lot a lot. And the consequences are staggering.”
The college drinking culture isn’t going to change overnight, especially not when so many participants and alumni fight to preserve it. But sobriety needs to be a part of the conversation.
Consider this: Alcoholism treatment and alcoholism self-help programs like Alcoholics Anonymous promote abstinence and change on the part of the individual, not wholesale cancellation of drinking by society at large. At present, however, there’s an imbalance when it comes to alcohol consumption at colleges and universities, one in which overindulgence is celebrated and sobriety isn’t discussed — or worse, seen as a sign of weakness.
No one who starts out as part of the college drinking culture and finds themselves battling an alcohol problem later on in life ever made that struggle part of their overarching career plan. But it happens — and until the possibility of it is acknowledged, and methods of assistance are promoted with half the energy and enthusiasm as keggers and Greek life ragers and tailgate parties, it’s only going to get worse.