People enrolled in colleges and universities drink more often than their peers not enrolled in school, and also have unusually high rates of involvement in drinking practices capable of producing serious or even fatal outcomes. In a study published in July 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review, a team of researchers from New Zealand and Australia sought to determine the specific drinking-related behaviors that make it more likely a college student will be exposed to harm. These researchers identified a range of behaviors that make alcohol-related harm more likely to occur.
College Alcohol Use
In the U.S., roughly 46 percent of the population between the ages of 18 and 20 consumes alcohol at least monthly. Among people 21 to 25, the baseline monthly drinking rate increases dramatically to about 69 percent (the highest rate for any age group). College students (who are commonly between the ages of 18 and 25) surpass even this higher rate of consumption by more than 11 percent. They also match or surpass their age contemporaries not enrolled in college when it comes to binge drinking (a pattern of short-term heavy drinking that quickly produces intoxication). While the binge drinking rate for all 21- to 25-year-olds is roughly 45 percent (again, the highest rate for any U.S. age group), college enrollees binge drink at a rate closer to 50 percent.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports several factors that help explain why college students drink so often and drink so much. These factors include the general lack of behavioral monitoring on the part of parents or other authority figures, the sheer availability of alcohol and drinking opportunities, the freedom that many students have to arrange their schedules as they see fit and sporadic enforcement of laws that prohibit drinking under the age of 21. In addition, widespread drinking participation on a college campus is typically reinforced by the presence of large-scale athletic programs, as well as well-established sororities and fraternities.
College students who binge drink or otherwise consume alcohol above moderate levels have clearly heightened chances of riding in vehicles operated by intoxicated drivers, driving while intoxicated, getting involved in nonfatal or fatal accidents, developing nonfatal or fatal cases of alcohol poisoning, physically attacking someone or being physically attacked, and sexually assaulting someone or being sexual assaulted. They also have heightened chances of taking part in unsafe sexual practices that result in disease exposure and/or unwanted pregnancies. Each year, millions of college students are exposed to at least one of these alcohol-related harms.
Which Behaviors Increase The Risk Of Alcohol-Related Harm?
In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Review, researchers from New Zealand’s University of Otego and Australia’s University of Newcastle used a survey of 2,683 New Zealand college students between the ages of 17 and 25 to help determine the circumstances in which alcohol-related harms are most likely to occur. All of these students were full-time enrollees who filled out their survey answers online. Specific forms of harm under consideration included accidental injuries, sexual assaults, physical assaults, driving while intoxicated, riding with an intoxicated driver and taking part in unprotected sex. The researchers looked at the differences in the drinking behaviors between the study participants, as well as the differences in each individual participant’s behaviors under particular circumstances.
After analyzing the information, the researchers concluded that certain behavioral differences between college drinkers and certain behavioral differences within any individual college drinker can increase the odds of experiencing alcohol-related harm. Key behavioral differences between drinkers include consuming a larger number of drinks, continuing to drink later into the night or later into the following morning, and drinking in the company of good friends rather than strangers or acquaintances. Key behavioral differences between drinkers and within any single drinker include consuming alcohol in a relatively large number of settings and getting more intoxicated than intended when the night began. Roughly 7 percent of the men who responded to the survey reported experiencing harm, while only about 5 percent of the women reported experiencing harm. Still, the researchers could not identify any gender-based differences in the circumstances in which harm is likely to occur.
Based on their findings, the study’s authors believe that college students can substantially reduce their exposure to alcohol-related harm by reducing both the amount of time they spend drinking and the amount of alcohol they imbibe during drinking opportunities. They also believe that legal changes in the availability of alcohol may be needed to effectively reduce students’ drinking participation.