Drinking Away College Students’ Futures

Naasom Azevedo, Unsplash

Higher education is now deeply into the traditional beginning of the academic year. But the COVID-19 pandemic will make this year anything but traditional. My fear, based on extensive research, is that binge drinking will prove to be a major factor in the spread of infection among college students and in campus communities. While most college students aren’t binge drinkers, many are. But colleges and their communities can take steps to lower rates of binge drinking and arguably the risk of community spread.

According to data gathered by the Davidson College Crisis Initiative, less than half of institutions now say they will hold traditional in-person classes. Many will invite students to be in residence. As students return to campus or to nearby neighborhoods, these institutions will face unprecedented challenges in keeping their students, faculty and staff, and the surrounding community safe from the virus. At least 6,300 coronavirus cases have already occurred at American colleges and universities, and the true number may be much greater.

Most colleges will turn to some form of hybrid model. One critic has called that model of online classes and in-person living arrangements a devil’s bargain, the worst of both worlds: “….students will live, play, and date in person — but learn online. In the brave new hybrid world, your fraternity will meet face-to-face while your classes meet on Zoom.”

The CDC has assembled some considerations for institutions of higher education to deal with the pandemic. Most suggest social distancing, masking, and keeping environments sterile. But the CDC doesn’t mention binge drinking, a frequent part of the college experience.

Several outbreaks among college students highlight the threat. A 35-person University of Texas Austin spring break trip to Mexico led to the infection of over 60 travelers and others. At the University of Washington, 117 residents at 15 fraternity houses tested positive. At the University of California Berkeley, a recent surge in cases followed Greek parties.

What concerns me most is college binge drinking — consuming four or more drinks at a time for women and five or more drinks at a time for men — raising the risk of community spread. About one-third of college students of traditional college age are binge drinkers. At about one-third of colleges, the majority of students are binge drinkers.

Even before the pandemic, binge drinking has been strongly associated with a variety of forms of misconduct and even crime, as well as negative health behaviors — so we know how likely college students are to disregard public health advice about masking, handwashing, and social distancing.

While harm to the individual drinker is a major part of the damage of binge drinking, there is also a threat to those students who don’t drink but share a residential college experience — what the Harvard School of Public Health researcher Henry Wechsler called “secondhand binge effects.” During this epidemic the risk of infection or infecting others a critical potential secondhand effect.

What’s the evidence that binge drinking may lead to disregarding public health warnings? Research findings about both effects to drinkers and secondhand binge effects are troubling. Some examples:

Fortunately, some behavior change may already be happening. A survey from the American College Health Association and the Healthy Minds Network found a decline in binge drinking from 38 to 24 percent from the Fall 2019 semester to the end of the Spring 2020 semester. This reflects the sharp economic downturn, the rapid exodus from campus, and the widespread closure of bars and other alcohol outlets. State efforts to prevent community spread have depended heavily on closing bars, including those that cater to students. As many states and counties relax restrictions, the risks grow greater.

The Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has argued forcefully that we’ve reached a “terrible, unnecessary dilemma” with our entire educational system. Either we reopen schools, and expand the epidemic, or keep them closed and incur major educational loss to our students. “And the reason we’re in this position is that states, cheered on by the Trump administration, rushed to allow large parties and reopen bars. In a real sense America drank away its children’s future.”

Institutions and communities should follow what’s been learned about how to curb excessive alcohol use as part of their response to the crisis. The NIAAA has rated 60 evidence-based interventions that target individual behavior or broader environmental factors in terms of costs and effectiveness — for example, providing individual students feedback about their drinking or restricting alcohol promotions. In addition, a study at California public universities demonstrated that such tactics as nuisance party enforcement and DUI checkpoints could lessen student intoxication and, potentially, the risk of community spread.

Curbing binge drinking is necessary to improve health, safety, and security among college students and on college campuses, all the more so during COVID-19. There is ample evidence about what works to lower college binge drinking. The risk of worsening an already terrible pandemic will provide the motivation, often lacking in the past.

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George Dowdall

I’m a sociologist interested in public health. I’m an emeritus professor at Saint Joseph’s U. and an adjunct fellow at Penn. I live in San Francisco.