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Collegiate Opportunities Derailed By Alcohol

For many Americans, attending college is regarded as a rite of passage, celebrating newfound independence and higher education. Attending college can propel an individual into fantastic opportunities; however, alcohol abuse on college campuses threatens to derail students from their studies, health, and mental well-being. The culture of college drinking is no unfamiliar trope. With ample availability and varying degrees of legal consequences, the likelihood of a college student drinking underage or heavily is statistically staggering.

Factors Influencing College Drinking

Social, personal, and environmental factors heavily influence students’ drinking habits. Full-time college students drink more than their peers in their age group,  with 53% of college students reporting they consumed alcohol in the past month in 2019. Much like an individual’s predisposition to developing a substance use disorder (SUD), personal risk indicators include family genetics, peer pressure, and personal history. Additionally, many students have either seen in media or heard anecdotes about alcohol’s “positive” role in college life, so the decision to drink may not seem severe or harmful to them. This society-wide acceptance of alcohol encourages alcohol consumption among students. Also, many students arrive at college with a preexisting history of alcohol consumption. In 2019, 59% of 12th graders had tried alcohol, and 41% had been drunk at least once.

There are traditions and beliefs passed along through the generations that alcohol is a harmless and necessary component of the college experience. These beliefs reinforce students’ expectations that drinking is not only commonplace but expected behavior. Beyond social influences, the prevalence of advertisements and sale of alcohol on or near campuses builds an environment that passively and actively promotes alcohol use. Alcohol advertisements, a multi-billion expenditure, help create an environment where alcohol is an aid to college students, sold as a social lubricant, an inhibitor reducer, and a relaxer. Additionally, the more licensed liquor establishments in any area, the more likely students will consume alcohol. The density of alcohol outlets can lead to a 15-16% difference in individuals’ positive attitudes toward drinking and an 11% increase in alcohol consumption.

Consequences Of Heavy And Underage Drinking

The repercussion of drinking reaches beyond those who partake; abusive and underage drinking exacts an enormous toll on the communities where it takes place and families alike. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), nearly one-third of car crash fatalities in the US involve drunk driving. Among college students ages 18 to 24, over 3.3 million drive under the influence of alcohol. A split-second decision to get behind the wheel while intoxicated can alter the trajectory of life for not only the driver but countless individuals connected to the potential victim of the accident. While drinking alcohol is often discussed as an individual choice, the consequences reach beyond a singular person.

From an individualistic perspective, the risk of academic problems, assault, sexual assault, developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD), and death increase for students who heavily drink or drink underage. About 1 in 4 college students report academic difficulties due to drinking, including missing classes, falling behind in schoolwork, and receiving lower grades overall. Every year, researchers estimate the following consequences of harmful and underage drinking:

• Death: 1,519 college students between 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries.
• Assault: 696,000 college students are assaulted by someone who has been drinking.
• Sexual assault: 1 in 5 college women are sexually assaulted during their time in college, and many cases involve alcohol or other substances.
• AUD: Nearly 9% of college students meet the criteria for an AUD.
• Hospitalization: 22,219 college students are hospitalized for an alcohol overdose.

College Drinking In Greek Life

While drinking is pervasive across all aspects of student life, there is a higher prevalence of alcohol abuse among fraternities and sororities. Fraternity members binge drink at higher rates than their non-fraternity peers with nearly 86% of fraternity members binge drinking monthly. Such alcohol consumption, like non-Greek life peers, leads to increased accounts of assault, academic failure, and substance use disorders (SUD) later in life. However, the correlation between alcohol abuse and sexual assault in fraternities is alarming. 70,000 sexual assault and rape cases involve fraternities annually, with members committing rape at a frequency of 300% more than their non-fraternity peers. These statistics are not indicating the morals of fraternities, but they are showcasing the environment that alcohol abuse breeds. Research continues to better understand and estimate the number of alcohol-related assaults among college students.

In addition, a study conducted by the Journal of Adolescent Health found that nearly half of residential fraternity members developed AUD symptoms by age 35. The same study also found that living in a sorority or fraternity is linked to continued binge drinking or marijuana use. Those who lived in a fraternity house for at least 1 semester exhibited higher rates of binge drinking during and after college compared to peers in college not involved with fraternities and non-students. Similarly, 26.4% of women who lived in a sorority house had 2 or more AUD symptoms by 35 compared to non-residential sorority members, college students not involved in sororities, and non-college peers.

Alcohol And Hazing

Alcohol is not always involved during hazing activities, but it is often a central or accompanied element in fraternity and sorority initiations. Hazing is any activity that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers an individual as a part of initiation into a group. Many Greek organizations educate members on hazing, along with other topics on alcohol, drug abuse, and sexual misconduct, but many members continue to partake in the act of hazing.

There are 2 roles of alcohol in hazing: the first role is to reduce the anxieties or guilt that current members may experience from subjecting new members to emotional and physical distress. Additionally, intoxication allows current members “insurance” against responsibility for hazing incidents, although intoxication is not a valid legal defense. The second role of alcohol in hazing involves new members. Alcohol can serve as a “social lubricant” for new members to ease into group bonding. Still, alcohol also impairs judgment, decreasing a new member’s resistance to partaking in risky behavior.

Some fatal cases of hazing have involved “ritualized drinking,” where there is systemic pressure directed toward vulnerable recruits to consume dangerous, even deadly, amounts of alcohol. Rapid consumption of alcohol can suppress brain functions which can result in death. A common argument for groups who participate in hazing is that no one is “forced to drink.” The reality is that these groups possess coercive power, and psychological force can be as strong as physical force.

Changing The Drinking Culture

Heavy and underage drinking is a pervasive and multi-faceted issue that impacts individual students, the student body, and the surrounding community. Many colleges have programs that involve prevention, intervention, and treatment strategies to offset this growing concern. These programs provide students with information on the risks of drinking, how these risks interfere with their goals, how to monitor and reduce drinking, and how to handle high-risk situations. Programs that target the student body and surrounding community provide alcohol education and alcohol-free campus activities, limit alcohol availability, and enforce underage drinking laws. While these approaches offer comprehensive strategies to address harmful student drinking, adjusting student misperceptions about alcohol will take time. Alcohol and alcohol consumption is such a widely accepted social norm, but colleges and communities are working to educate students and prevent harmful drinking habits for generations to come.

Get Help For Alcohol Addiction

College is a time for self-discovery, education, and further developing social skills, but the reality of developing an alcohol addiction during college is a pressing concern. The impact of alcohol is often downplayed in context to college, so if you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction, contact a treatment provider today.

  • Author: Carmen McCrackin | Last Updated: March 17, 2022

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    Carmen McCrackin

    Carmen McCrackin earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Auburn and has over 3 years of professional writing experience. Her passion for writing and educating others led her to a career in journalism with a focus on mental health and social justice topics. Her main mission is to be a platform for all voices and stories, and to provide tangible resources to those seeking recovery for themselves or loved ones.

  • Medical Reviewer: David Hampton

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