Fuller picture emerges of college drinking

For the first time, a study tallies number of alcohol-related deaths

Alcohol abuse has emerged as one of the biggest social problems on college campuses in the 1990s. Rape, assaults, property damage - all are part of the numbing toll drinking contributes to.

But the question persists: How many students actually die due to alcohol abuse?

Now a confidential new study begins to answer that question for the first time - and the results may accelerate sobriety measures on campuses across the country.

The internal report, done by an arm of the US Department of Education (DOE), identifies 84 student deaths in alcohol-related circumstances at colleges and universities nationwide since 1996. While this statistic is alarming enough, many college officials and even the study's authors say it vastly underplays the scope of the problem.

"This information at best provides a baseline ... and is undoubtedly a far underestimate of the actual number of such deaths," says the study by DOE's Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention (HEC) in Newton, Mass.

Despite its limitations, the report is the first attempt by an organization to report the national dimensions of the tragedy - and gather the number of alcohol-related deaths at individual schools. "For me the real story is, why isn't anyone reporting this data?" says William DeJong, director of the HEC.

Alcohol-related crimes must be reported by law. Yet there is no federal requirement to report drinking-related student deaths. So there is no comprehensive source for national data. Instead, the HEC report was compiled by patching together information by e-mail, numbers from other researchers, and news reports.

Without comprehensive statistics, analysts like Dr. DeJong say it's hard to know whether anti-alcohol policies are working. Some campuses are rigorously trying to curb abuse, while others are not.

Binge drinking

About 42 percent of students "binge" regularly - drink to get drunk, according to a 1997 Harvard School of Public Health study. Yet spending on programs to stem abuse remains relatively low. Four-year colleges in the United States earmark on average about $13,179 per year each (not including salaries), according to a 1997 survey of 330 schools.

Earlier this month, however, 113 colleges and universities did band together to launch a high-profile advertising campaign.

"Higher education needs to take the alcohol-abuse issue more seriously," says David Anderson, associate professor of education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who conducted the survey. "We have to make a reasonable and diligent effort, and I don't think most campuses are doing that."

Dr. Anderson's study found that two-thirds of all property damage, 64 percent of violent behavior, 42 percent of physical injury, 37 percent of emotional difficulty, and 38 percent of poor academic performance could be attributed to alcohol abuse.

Require reporting?

To get more comprehensive numbers would mean requiring the nation's 4,000 higher-education institutions to report death and injury statistics - something at least some administrators believe would be invaluable.

"We need [the data collected] ... so we know whether our policies are working," says Stanley Koplik, chancellor of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, which voted two years ago to ban alcohol on 29 campuses in the Bay State.

Others, however, say that reporting alcohol-related deaths might be impossible since it's often difficult to pinpoint causes. Many, too, see it as burdensome. "Any student death is a tragedy," says Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, a Washington-based college lobbying group. "But it doesn't necessarily follow that the best way to prevent future tragedies is to impose ... reporting requirements. Often it's better to emphasize education."

Yet schools are also reluctant to report the depth of drinking-related problems for another reason: Its impact on their image.

"We had people e-mailing us who said, 'I'm letting you know about this [student-alcohol death], but for heaven's sake don't tell anyone I did it because the administration is trying to keep it quiet,' " DeJong says.

News accounts of alcohol-related deaths are usually reported as isolated incidents. So it's often difficult to get a comprehensive - and consistent - picture.

A recent national newspaper report on the drinking culture at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, for instance, cited three deaths in recent years. The DOE report, however, makes a small notation next to the name of a fourth-year student at the school who died in November 1997 after falling down a flight of stairs while drunk.

The notation reads: "17 since 1990," indicating that someone at the university informed HEC that 17 UVA students had died in alcohol-related circumstances since 1990. Still, the HEC report officially listed only one.

James Turner, director of UVA's department of student health, confirms that 17 is the school's "best estimate" of the number of alcohol-related deaths since 1989.

"We've averaged one to two alcohol-related deaths every year for the last 10 years," he says. "It's a significant number."

One mother whose child died in an alcohol-related circumstance at UVA sympathizes with the school's efforts to fight its "alcohol culture."

"The university is fighting [alcohol abuse] the best it can," says the woman, who requested anonymity. "Still, if someone had told me that every year or so someone dies on campus, I would have had to think twice before I sent my [child] there."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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