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Quandary for colleges: how to battle binge drinking

By Randy DotingaCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 18, 2005

As Lynn Gordon "Gordie" Bailey Jr. prepared for his freshman year at the University of Colorado last fall, his parents gave him the usual warnings about alcohol - be careful, don't ever drink and drive.

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They didn't mention the warning that drinking too much at one sitting could prove fatal.

"That's not even in your realm of thinking," recalls his stepfather, Michael Lanahan. "If it had been, we would have talked about it, and we didn't." [Editor's note: In the original version, Lanahan's name was misspelled.]

For its part, the university did give advice about alcohol poisoning to Mr. Bailey through an online program required of all freshmen. In addition, strict new rules at the school allowed administrators to suspend students after just two alcohol-related rules violations.

None of this, however, prevented fraternity members from hazing Bailey on Sept. 16 with an initiation ritual that reportedly required him to down gallons of wine and liquor.

By the next morning, he had died, the level of alcohol in his blood more than three times the legal limit for driving in many states.

Now, Bailey's family are asking tougher questions aimed at the university's policies, joining other parents and students appalled by a recent spate of fatal alcohol overdoses around the country.

College administrators, meanwhile, are torn about what to do.

"We want people to be free, but we also want to keep them from hurting themselves," says Aaron White, an assistant research professor of psychology at Duke University who studies alcohol use on campus.

Despite education programs and tougher rules on some campuses, there is evidence that patterns of alcohol abuse have shifted in recent years - and not for the better.

Surveys suggest more than 8 in 10 college students drink, with half of those regularly engaging in "binge drinking" - downing so much alcohol that they become intoxicated.

"We have a younger generation that is drinking much differently than the generation I belonged to," says Mr. Lanahan, a Dallas real-estate developer who graduated from college in 1968. "They're drinking with a purpose, and the purpose is to get drunk."

Indeed, while the number of college-age heavy drinkers has stayed stable for the last several years, research suggests that they're drinking more on average.

Since last September, students at Colorado State University and the University of Oklahoma have also died from apparent alcohol poisoning.

"Alcohol use on campus is nothing new. What seems to be new is drinking to the point of directly dying from alcohol use," says Mr. White. He helped develop an online alcohol-education program called AlcoholEdu, which is now in use at about 350 colleges. At the University of Colorado at Boulder and other schools, students must log onto a website, sit through a three-hour presentation, and pass a test before beginning their freshman year.

White acknowledges that education efforts go only so far, and he says they're ineffective in many cases.

"Simply telling students that they'll kill brain cells if they drink too much, for example, is not an effective way to prevent excessive drinking," agrees Mark Goldman, associate director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Part of the problem is the lack of research into the best prevention strategies. The studies on college drinking that do exist are "relatively new, and the data are incomplete," according to Mr. Goldman, who adds that many administrators become "demoralized" after their approaches fail to reduce problems.