First NIH report on college drinking includes recommendations from Cornell counseling and student services experts

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ITHACA, N.Y. -- The first report on college drinking conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was released today (April 9, 2002) at a news conference in Washington, D.C. The report, "A Call to Action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at U.S. Colleges," is the result of a three-year effort conducted by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Philip W. Meilman, director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell University, and Susan H. Murphy, vice president for student and academic services, contribute chapters that explore the complexities of various factors that lead to binge drinking and the challenges for campus officials as they try to develop policies relating to alcohol use and abuse.

Their reports support the conclusions that more research needs to be done on why students abuse alcohol and that there is not one solution that will fit every campus.

Meilman's chapter,"College Factors That Influence Drinking," is co-written by Cheryl A. Presley of student health programs at Southern Illinois University and Jami S. Leichliter with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The three authors review the extensive research on alcohol abuse on campuses that has been conducted since 1953, when college and university administrators first reported alcohol to be a problem. Numerous studies, most prominently the national Core Alcohol and Drug Survey, have included student surveys. Researchers looked at factors ranging from age, race, gender, involvement in Greek societies, athletic participation, type of institution, geographical region and others to try to identify specific factors and/or patterns that lead to alcohol abuse by students.

Researchers have concluded that the students most likely to engage in the heaviest binge drinking are white males, especially those involved in fraternities and athletics; that students in the Northeast consume more alcohol and have a greater incidence of binge drinking than those in other areas of the country; and that the incidence of underage and binge drinking on a particular campus can be affected by environmental factors, such as the number of bars nearby and the price of alcohol.

"In spite of all the information researchers have compiled, there are still many questions we must answer in order to develop effective strategies to reduce alcohol abuse by students," Meilman said in an interview. "We must look at how various factors interact with each other and develop a model for action that includes the campus environment, the student culture on individual campuses and individual traits."

The authors write, "We believe that models need to be developed where the institution and the individual are examined in relation to each other."

For example, Meilman and his co-authors suggest that researchers more closely examine "self-selection," by which students choose campuses that they perceive to have heavy binge-drinking behavior by students and how they arrive at that perception.

A closer look at the density of bars and restaurants and the price of drinks also should be conducted, the authors recommend. Another factor that may be important, they write, is "the surrounding community's tolerance of drinking," exemplified in "easy carding" and drink specials that lure students. Many colleges and universities, including Cornell, conduct "social norms" campaigns that aim to educate students that most of their campus peers do not engage in binge drinking.

All these factors must be examined in relation to individual students' beliefs about drinking, their drinking histories and perceptions of risk, the authors conclude.

"So What Is an Administrator to Do?" is the chapter contributed by Murphy, who has been responsible for student life and academic support services at Cornell since 1994. She currently is chairing the Cornell President's Council on Alcohol and Drug Use.

"Fundamental to addressing the issues of alcohol use and abuse is a clear understanding of the mission and philosophy of a given institution," Murphy writes. "While all schools must comply with state and federal laws, no single policy can cut across the 3,000+ institutions of higher learning; they simply are too different."

Institutions vary in their approach to discipline on campus, ranging from "freedom with responsibility," which is Cornell's approach, to strict orientation toward discipline, as at many religious-affiliated schools. Whatever the approach, each institution must develop and widely disseminate rules and regulations, but only the ones that "the school is willing (and able) to enforce," Murphy writes. "There is much greater risk of liability for failure to enforce strict supervisory rules and regulations than there is for conscientious implementation of policies that emphasize student responsibility and that impose sanctions when students fail to fulfill their obligations."

She gives special attention to the challenges of regulating alcohol use among Greek organizations and among athletes, noting, "it is apparent that alcohol is closely associated with the athletic enterprise in this country." She supports intervention strategies to control alcohol at campus events, including those organized by fraternities and sororities, athletic events and alumni events.Institutions must set "realistic but visionary goals" in assessing alcohol use on campus and developing policies to control it, Murphy writes. Leadership, she writes, must come from the president of the institution.

"Often these goals will not be for total prohibition - in fact, one could argue that such policies have already failed miserably in this country," she concludes. "Yet, at the same time, a call for moderation should not be seen as an acceptance that the alcohol culture is intractable and simply a 'rite of passage.' In fact, change can occur and has occurred in several different ways. The true success is found when campus and community members come together to form solid coalitions and all key stakeholders, especially students, see that such change can be an improvement."