That’s Why I’m Drinkin’ Again: A Longer, Taller Look At Collegiate Partying

September 30, 2010, 6:41 pm

The Davidson College student newspaper, artfully named The Davidsonian, published a piece yesterday about one of the Radical’s favorite topics, college drinkin’.  Davidson is one of 30 schools that is part of a  long-term study measuring substance (ab)use on college campuses. “This assessment, administered by the CORE Institute at Southern Illinois University – Carbondale (SIUC),” writes kid reporter Kelly Wilson, “was developed in the late 1980′s by the U.S. Department of Education. Colleges and universities across the country use it to gauge alcohol and other drug usage, attitudes, and perceptions on their campuses.”

Davidson, like many other liberal arts colleges (including Zenith) has been trying to decide what to do about binge drinking, and has been using the CORE survey data to strategize interventions.   More stringent policing, student life administrators worry, would drive students off campus where drinking is even less safe.

Interestingly, Davidson Health Educator Georgia Ringle is arguing that there is a wide range of drinking behaviors on campus.  Close to 30% of students don’t drink at all, around 25% drink a lot; and all the students in the middle would not drink so much if the ones who drank a lot didn’t put so much energy into persuading their peers that you can only have a good time when you are drunk.

One question that comes to mind is whether, as educators, we have become adept at inventing phrases such as “binge drinking” and “pre-partying” to avoid admitting that a significant percentage of our students have become alcoholics at a young age, and perhaps have been destined by genetics or their family environment to become so.  This article certainly points to that conclusion, among others.  The kind of social pressure to make others get drunk too is typical of alcoholics, and many alcoholics function at high levels despite drinking in a way that would ruin, say, me.  It is not inconceivable that drinking by imitation may be causing students in that middle group to underperform academically while some of the binge drinkers  – who are hard-wired alcoholics —  are going on to Phi Beta Kappa. As Ringle notes,

the campus mentality around alcohol on campus is set by a minority of students who are drinking much more than five drinks per week. They set “the peer standard because they’re out there having more fun, playing the music, talking about it, whereas the non-drinkers don’t say, ‘Guess what I did Saturday night, it was so cool!’ I mean they should, but they’re not quite as boisterous.
“So there could be kind of a core group of 200 that are always leading the pack, saying ‘Come on, come on we should go out. Let’s pregame in my room; let’s go down,’” Ringle continued. “But if you actually study each individual’s drinking, most are moderate.”

In fact, she has data indicating that 53.5% of Davidson students drink five drinks or less per week. “Now, would I like that 53.5% to be higher? Yes,” Ringle said. “But most students imagine everyone’s drinking much more than five. I want to give back the actual truth and fact to the students, and this number is a lot lower than what most students imagine. What we have found – and this is not just Davidson – is that if students think everyone’s drinking more, they will raise their drinking level to match their perception.” She pointed out that 28% of students at Davidson do not drink alcohol on a weekly basis.

That’s right:  most students drink because it is cool, and because a minority of the student body has enough influence to set the norm.  In fact, as the article goes on to say, many students who don’t like to drink pretend that they are doing it.  They will “go to parties and just hold a red cup even though the red cup didn’t have alcohol in it – simply because they felt like they needed to do it[.]”

I wonder what we would have to do to make working really hard at your academics look cool? Are students so hard-wired from high school that good grades + geekiness that even at selective schools such as Davidson and Zenith they have to act as if they don’t care about anything but “fun” in order to feel like they have a shot at being popular?  And is anyone studying that 28% who don’t drink to figure out how they resist peer pressure to conform?

You can read the whole article — the second in a two-part series — here.

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