Drinking and college go together like “love and marriage”—right? Wrong! Just as the love-marriage connection has increased in complexity over the years, so too has the drinking-college connection.
Certainly, we have come a long way from thinking of drinking in college as a harmless recreational activity, a rite of passage on the road to adulthood. Nowadays, drinking on campus has become more dangerous than ever—and not only for the problem drinker, but also for the person who doesn’t drink.
Times Have Changed
For many years, colleges “looked the other way” when underage drinking occurred on campus or in fraternity housing. Then media coverage of the more sensational alcohol-related tragedies forced colleges to address the problem of heavy drinking. At the same time, media coverage of recent Harvard School of Public Health national surveys heightened both parental concern and public alarm about the dangers of “binge drinking” on campus. As defined by Harvard researchers Henry Wechsler and Nancy Isaac in 1992, binge drinking involves the consumption of five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more for women. The term was picked up by the media to describe drinking that leads to serious problems, like violence, date rape, injury, and death.
In Wechsler et al.’s 1999 study, 44 percent of the college students surveyed admitted to binge drinking in the preceding two weeks. Why they drink is even more telling. Whereas, in 1993, 39 percent of the students said they drink “to get drunk,” in 1999 that percentage had increased to 52 percent. This study also reported a significant increase in the number of those who do not drink at all, the abstainers. In 1999, 19 percent of students surveyed described themselves as abstainers, up from 15 percent in 1993. These researchers identified a polarization in drinking behavior: large numbers of students who do not drink and large numbers who drink excessively.
Terms Are Changing
Recently, a group of 21 associations in higher education urged government leaders and campus administrators and researchers to stop using the term “binge drinking.” Their reasoning goes like this: if students think binge drinking is the norm on their campus, merely using the term may encourage more alcohol consumption among students. In his response in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wechsler has said that no matter what term is used, students who consume four or five drinks in a row are at risk.
Is this a controversy about terminology, different perspectives on alcohol abuse, or concern that drinking on campus is a problem almost too big for a campus to handle? To Wechsler, Lee and colleagues, the controversy illustrates the continual denial of problem drinking on campuses.