For more than two decades, college administrators, fearful of alcohol’s effects on young lives and learning, have tried many ways to curb excessive drinking by students. Those fears were revived last week when 18 members of a fraternity at Pennsylvania State University were criminally charged after a student died during a recent alcohol-laden initiation ceremony.
The remarkable indictments help highlight the need for a fresh approach to campus drinking, one based not just on fear of such student behavior but also on fulfilling the capacity of young people for healthy pursuits. The estimated 1,800 college students who die every year from alcohol-related injuries could have been guided toward safer ways to socialize or given better ways to overcome adolescent anxieties.
Penn State’s reaction to this tragic case was, like that of many schools, simply punitive. It cracked down on its fraternity system. And indeed, the indictment cites the school’s Greek community for “an environment so permissive of excessive drinking and hazing that it emboldened its members to repeatedly act with reckless disregard to human life.”
Yet in a signal for deeper thinking, Penn State President Eric Barron put out a plea: “For anyone looking across the national landscape, you realize that we have a national problem that is associated with excessive drinking.”
One way to reframe this issue is to take note of a recent survey by the University of Michigan. Among people ages 19 and 20, a quarter said they drink five or more drinks on a single occasion, or what’s called high-intensity drinking. That percentage jumps sharply for college students. The study’s chief author, Megan Patrick, explains the difference: “College attendance is associated with a freedom from adult responsibilities. Students, if they’re living with their parents, might not have the same opportunity to drink as students living on campus or in student housing.”
Ensuring that students are kept busy with an abundance of safe opportunities, from nonalcoholic parties to sports to volunteering, may be the better route for colleges and universities. Up to now, schools have relied mainly on negative messaging and stricter enforcement. Many offer – or even require – new students to view videos about the dangers of drinking, with the message that getting drunk is not a rite of passage. Some work with local liquor stores and restaurants to prevent underage drinking or purchases of alcohol. Others encourage students to act as “sober monitors” at social events where alcohol might be consumed. Last year, after the sexual assault of a student, Stanford University banned liquor from undergraduate parties.
Strategies aimed at scaring or deterring students, however, have made only small improvements or have proved difficult to sustain. Alumni, for example, often complain about new restrictions on the traditions of sororities and fraternities. Or schools are torn on whether to ban alcohol or introduce “safe” drinking habits.
The best solution may lie in helping students cherish their ability to think clearly and to act responsibly toward themselves and others. Simply operating out of a fear of drinking can be a tipsy tactic. Schools must show students how to live a good life, full of healthy relationships and learning – and free of the notion that liquor is a liberator.