Colleges try new tactics in battle against binge drinking

Schools are teaching students the signs of excessive drinking.

An online self-assessment is one of many tactics that colleges and universities are using to combat binge drinking, which remains a serious problem on campuses nationwide.

Catherine Sedun remembers binge drinking among students when she attended college about a decade ago. Despite an influx of programs to combat the problem in recent years, she says it remains a top concern on many campuses.

“These students work so hard to get into these universities, and once they get here, a lot of them spiral out of control with their freedom,” she said. “It’s time to party.”

In an attempt to save students from themselves, Sedun, a high school teacher and a graduate student at Northwestern University, headed the Red Watch Band program at the Evanston, Ill., campus last year. The program teaches students to recognize the warning signs of alcohol poisoning—vomiting; cold, clammy skin; the inability to wake up—and to call for medical help.

It’s part of a wave of college initiatives meant to quell the chronic problem. The percentage of college students who binge drink—defined as five drinks for men and four drinks for women in two hours—has held steady at about 40 percent for most of the past decade, consistently more than non-college students, federal surveys show. Combining alcohol with energy drinks has fueled students’ ability to drink more and longer.

One estimate, from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, blames binge drinking for more than 1,800 college student deaths a year, mostly from drunken driving. Research shows that frequent binge drinkers are more likely to miss classes, get hurt, engage in risky sex, and have problems in class.

They’re also happier than nonbinge drinkers, according to a recent study at one school, but researchers say that seems to be because of their social status. Most often they’re white males involved in athletics and fraternities.

Acknowledging that some students are going to drink no matter what, many schools are practicing “harm reduction”—trying to save students from their own worst behaviors.

At Northwestern, the issue has particular resonance. Nineteen-year-old freshman Matthew Sunshine died of alcohol poisoning in 2008 after a party in his dorm hall. As part of a settlement with his family, the school agreed to review its alcohol policy. The next year, Northwestern started the Red Watch Band program, developed at Stony Brook University in New York, where Sunshine’s mother worked.

NU also has joined the Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking, in which 32 schools across the country are trying short-term changes to alcohol policy and monitoring the results. As part of its efforts, Northwestern employs BASICS, an assessment of students who get involved in alcohol-related medical or police incidents, and lowered the time for treatment from 30 to 20 days, according to Lisa Currie, director of health promotion and wellness.

“There is no magic bullet,” she said. “It’s small improvements … that work together.”