More Colleges Struggle to Cap Beer Culture
Death of MIT fraternity student underscores campus alcohol-abuse crisis.
The statistic is sobering: College students spend $5.5 billion on alcohol each year - more than on books, soda, coffee, juice, and milk combined.Skip to next paragraph
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It points to a deeply ingrained culture of student drinking in America - a vexing problem that is forcing more campuses to experiment with aggressive new ways of curbing alcohol abuse.
* The State University of New York in Albany has worked out an agreement with off-campus tavern owners to stop happy hours and avoid selling to minors.
* Ohio State University in Columbus suspended a dozen students after a drunken post-football-game riot in 1996. The president called each student's parents to explain his actions.
* The University of Rhode Island at Kingston has banned alcohol at all campus activities. While booze-related incidents such as student brawls have not lessened, police say students are less aggressive toward authorities.
As college officials weigh their options, a debate is arising over how well "dry" campuses curb student drinking - and whether they merely push the problem into surrounding communities.
The issue is becoming more urgent in the wake of recent alcohol-related tragedies, including the death this week of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student. Some experts say the real solution lies in changing the culture of campuses and their host cities.
"Local providers of alcohol have to be involved, as well as athletic departments and student leaders," says Henry Wechsler, director of College Alcohol Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. If colleges simply ban alcohol, he says, "you'll just drive it off campus."
If MIT freshman Scott Krueger were the only student to die from overdrinking, his story would be an isolated incident of lost potential. But in fact, binge drinking has become a sad fact of life on most college campuses. This year alone, three students have died from alcohol poisoning, and more have died from injuries sustained while drunk.
The scale of college drinking is immense. According to a 1995 nationwide survey of college students, 44 percent admitted to drinking in binges (meaning that men drink five or more drinks at a setting, and women drink four or more). Members of fraternities and sororities are among the most likely to binge, at 86 percent and 80 percent, respectively, according to the Harvard University study
"In the past 15 years, I think [binge drinking] has gotten worse," says Robert Carothers, president of the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. "The rites of societal passage keep getting earlier, and very high numbers of college freshmen come to us with a drinking habit." The Harvard study underlined this problem, he adds, with 37 percent of students admitting to having a substance-abuse problem.
"Every campus in the country looks at what happened at MIT and says, 'There but for the grace of God goes any one of us, at any week, despite our best efforts,' " says Dr. Carothers. "We all need to exert our best effort on this problem, because the risk is all too high."