Alcohol On Campus: Let's Get Real

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Search Colleges
TheBestSchools.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured programs and school search results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other information published on this site.

One night, many years ago, when George W. Bush was still president, Bill Cosby was still a beloved American icon, and Donald Trump was still just some jerk with a bunch of hotels, I learned a valuable lesson about alcohol consumption and fire safety.

As we sat around on a Saturday night, debating all things political, philosophical and even existential—because you think you're deep when you're in college and you've been drinking—one friend had a brilliant idea.

Our friend—we'll call him Bob because, well, that was his name—was about eight beers deep when he wandered off from the conversation. Bob returned a moment later, brandishing a fire extinguisher. Mind you, nothing was on fire. But Bob was curious. He was at that exact stage of intoxication where one has the capacity to make decisions but lacks the wherewithal to consider their consequences.

Without a word of warning, Bob popped the trigger.

Hilarious right?

Dude, actually, it was terrible. The room exploded into a white powdery haze. We were blind and hacking, gasping for air and wondering in that instance what the chemicals used to quench fire might be doing to our insides. In that state of sightless, breathless pandemonium, even Bob had enough sense to be filled with regret, and also, with fire extinguisher foam.

When the air finally cleared and each of us regained our senses, we found the room coated from floor to ceiling in white, as if the Ghostbusters had just exploded the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man right there in our off-campus housing unit. As unfunny as the moment itself was, the aftermath—a hungover Sunday spent q-tipping white gunk from the portholes of my short-circuiting computer—was even less funny.

I learned something that night. Things that seem hilarious when you're drinking are often not hilarious through sober eyes. Sometimes, these things are dangerous, possibly even deadly. No one died that night, and we all forgave Bob. And just like that, it became one of a billion stories logged into the annals of college lure, an unending saga about kids getting drunk, behaving stupidly, and living to tell about it.

But it doesn't always go like that.

Sobering Stats

In fact, a startling number of cases will come up every school year that illuminate the sometimes irreparable dangers of binge drinking. And of course, every year, your campus orientation will include an exhaustive array of programs and pamphlets outlining the statistical perils of excessive alcohol consumption.

Those perils are pretty compelling too.

On the basis of these statistics, you will be told not to binge drink. If you're underage, you'll be told to stay away from alcohol altogether. We're not here to disagree with these sentiments. We think that's pretty sound advice. But then, we also know many of you won't listen. And it's not because we're pessimists. It's because we've seen the numbers.

You're Going To Drink Anyway

I'm not saying that all college kids drink liquor, nor that most do so to excess. But the truth is, kids are inundated with facts about why campus alcohol consumption is dangerous or problematic. The information comes from valid sources and suggests a major public health problem. Students know these things are true. But it doesn't change the culture.

I went to college and I'd be lying if I told you that alcohol wasn't a major presence. Of course it was. Sometimes, I drank. Sometimes, I drank too much, not to the point of necessarily doing anything regrettable, but sometimes to the point of feeling regrettable. Sometimes, I saw others drink too much, and sometimes they did things that were regrettable.

For all the information that we consumed on the dangers of alcohol at freshman orientation, we consumed exponentially more alcohol during freshman year. Why the paradox between fact and behavior? The answer is manifold. It has something to do with the desire to fit in, the impulse to experiment with newfound freedoms, and the capacity to be bolder and more outgoing with the opposite sex. But it also has something to do with the fact that being drunk is fun, drunk people are funny, and who doesn't enjoy a good laugh now and then?

In other words, the urge to drink in college is social, primal, developmental, and in the simplest of terms, recreational. This is the stage in life when you have more freedom than responsibility, more access than impulse control, more ambition than experience. These paradoxes generally mean that you know all about the dangers of alcohol, you're pretty sure it can't happen to you, and you're going to do what you want. If you are a person inclined to make alcohol a part of your college experience, you will do so.

Your free will is only further tested by the fact that most colleges take a fairly lax approach to enforcing alcohol policies, particularly as they revolve around cherished traditions like college sports and Greek Life. An article in the New York Times points out that these cultural bastions of binge drinking are as storied and beloved as the tradition of higher education itself. In fact, explains the Times, we are currently at the tail end of a broad-based and largely failed national effort to curb college drinking.

College drinking has been acknowledged at the federal level as a public health crisis. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Harmful and underage college drinking are significant public health problems, and they exact an enormous toll on the intellectual and social lives of students on campuses across the United States.”

This conclusion has been the rationale for a pretty enormous expenditure of money, all aimed at reducing the seemingly inextricable correlation between higher education and rampant binge drinking. In the mid-90s, a Harvard study produced the alarming conclusion that roughly 44% of all college students were binge drinkers. Increasingly, college administrators were coming to recognize binge drinking less as a kids-will-be-kids phenomenon, and more as a public health problem with serious consequences.

With the issue coming into clearer focus, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation invested $17 million dollars in a program designed to improve campus approaches to underage and binge drinking. Partnering with the American Medical Association, the Johnson Foundation focused on altering the social perspective on college drinking, seeking to extend the premise that your fellow students are not drinking as much as you think they are, that you are on an island of over-indulgence.

Unfortunately, the numbers and results did not bear this premise out. Over more than a decade, the majority of participating colleges and universities did little to alter their policies and enforcement procedures. Those that did saw precious little improvement after the investment of time and money. Evidence suggested that kids were inclined to drink anyway, that the only real deterrent is the threat of legal action. But of course, binge drinking is not, itself, illegal for those 21 years of age or older, which means that most colleges have little real recourse.

This scenario has contributed to what the New York Times calls “issue fatigue.” Seeing little progress, most colleges have taken a step back from the fever pitch of public information campaigning and enforcement that peaked in the early 2000s.

By 2005, in fact, self-reported binge drinking had actually gone up, from 42% of students in 1999, to 45% just six years later. Still, according to Insider Higher Ed, there have been observable improvements in recent rates of on-campus binge drinking. Between 2005 and 2014, the rate declined to 37%. The news is promising, and correlates to lower rates of alcohol-related issues like driving under the influence.

Now, putting aside entirely the fact that 37% is still kind of a high number, the decline actually obscures a worrisome trend. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as consuming more than 5 alcoholic beverages in a sitting for males; 4 beverages for females. According to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, the rate of people who engage in "extreme binge drinking"—drinking at least twice the basic threshold for binge drinking—is on the rise.

And still, in spite of any incremental improvements in rates of drinking, those who are inclined to drink to excess are doing so with perhaps even greater recklessness than the generations that came before. Colleges have little appetite, it seems, to confront students in the environments where this is most commonplace. According to the Times, “Today, fewer than half of colleges consistently enforce their alcohol policies at tailgates, in dormitories and at fraternity and sorority houses. Only a third do compliance checks to monitor illegal alcohol sales in nearby neighborhoods. Just 7 percent try to restrict the number of outlets selling alcohol, and 2 percent work to reduce cheap drink specials at local bars, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota.”

At the root of this approach is not an indifference to the matter of college binge drinking so much as a philosophical resolution. Namely, that as adults—or at least as prospective adults—college kids are meant to make their own decisions, face the consequences, and learn accordingly.

Such is to say that, where many educators and administrators are concerned, drinking too much in college is just one of those things that kids have to learn for themselves, like heartbreak, or losing a job, or eating a sandwich from a turnpike rest stop. Once you've had the experience, you know you never want to feel it again. It's how you learn.

But you need to understand that you are not learning these things in a consequence-free environment. Bad things don't always happen when you drink too much, but they are a lot likelier.

So we don't condone binge drinking. And we most certainly don't condone underage drinking. These behaviors are between you, your liver, and the law. But we're also not your sweet, unsuspecting parents. We know exactly what kind of debauchery you will seek out in college, or even the kind of debauchery you might just accidentally stumble upon.

So this is not another pamphlet about how you shouldn't drink and it's not a statistically-driven list of facts about what happens when you drink. Call us cynical, but we kind of think you already know that stuff, and it hasn't really made much of a difference in your behavior either way.

I don't make light of the dangers related to binge drinking. The shocking and gut-wrenching accounts of Tim Piazza's alcohol-related death while pledging a fraternity at Penn State, or the disturbing and revealing accounts of Brock Turner's sexual assault case both underscore just how serious this matter is. But let's get real for a minute here. You know all of this stuff. You know what kind of awfulness can go down. But you still drink, and often to excess.

And I can relate. I knew about all that bad stuff when I was in college. Didn't stop me. And those of you who plan to make alcohol a part of your college experience, I'm guessing it won't stop you either.

So we're going to take a different approach. This is not an endorsement of drinking nor is it a condemnation. This is about how you behave once you've made the decision to drink. If I can't talk you out of raising a glass, I'll at least try to lend some insight on how to do it responsibly.

Don't Even Think About Driving

If you've had a drink, even one single drink, do not get into the car and drive. This one isn't rocket science. It's automotive science. If you drink alcohol, you are impaired. If you are impaired, you will drive poorly. You're in college so I shouldn't have to explain to you why it's dangerous, unethical and downright stupid to get behind the wheel of a two-ton machine with the capacity to travel in excess of 100 miles per hour while you are impaired. Just don't do it. If you think you might be able to drive but you're not sure, here's a quick test that you can do all by yourself and it's even easier than taking a breathalyzer. Here's the test: Did you have a drink this evening? Yes? Then you have no business being within ten feet of your own car. Cab it, call an Uber, find a designated driver, or thumb down a passing ox-drawn cart. If you get behind the wheel, you've demonstrated to the world that you can handle neither the responsibilities of drinking, nor driving. The best thing you can do is show up at a party, a bar, or a friend's house with a plan for getting home that doesn't involve you getting behind the wheel.

Don't Get in a Car With a Drunk

The exact same logic applies to getting into the car with somebody else who's been drinking. If you get into the passenger seat with a drunk driver, you are basically saying that you're willing to stake your entire life on the a seatbelt, an airbag, and a blind prayer. You're worth more than that. Don't be the person who gets into the passenger seat because it's the easy thing to do. Be the person who persuades the intended driver to step away from the car. Sounds like both of you should be splitting a cab home.

Use the Buddy System

To reiterate a point laid bare in the statistical portion of my rant, nearly 100,000 cases of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape are reported every year among students between ages 18 and 24. Alcohol impairs judgement, both for perpetrators and their victims. To be clear, sexual assault is never the victim's fault. The decision to drink alcohol, even to excess, does not serve as an invitation for sexual assault. No one has the right to engage you sexually without consent. Drinking to excess does not equal consent.

Now, with all of that said, you should understand when you do drink that there are a lot of scumbags out there. The statistics bear out this deeply scientific observation. This is information you need to carry with you into any situation where drinking is likely to be involved. It can help you to make smart decisions that might minimize your chances of being a victim. Rule number one for reducing your vulnerability is traveling with a buddy. If you're heading to a party, go with a trusted friend, the kind that won't bail on you just because you've had a little too much to drink and you're kind of annoying.

When you show up at a party, bring a friend who has your back. And you make sure you have your friend's back too. You don't leave the party without each other. It's a great system.

Guard Your Drink

Here's one you can take with you through life. A good rule of thumb when you're in public is to keep a close watch on your drink. The most common delivery system for date-rape drugs like Rohypnol (roofies) and Benzodiazepine (Benzos) is an unguarded beer. It's not totally clear how prevalent these drugs are on college campuses, partially due to underreporting, but it does happen. I can tell you what else really happens from experience. Remember that scene from Wedding Crashers where Owen Wilson dispatches a rival suitor (Bradly Cooper) by squirting some Visine into his beverage? Cooper's character spent the night wrapped around the toilet. As a person who once drank a suspicious beer from a suspicious person at a bar, I can tell you that that's exactly what happens when you drink a Visine-spiked beer. I'll never make that mistake again. And neither should you. Keep an eye on your drink. Don't take drinks from strangers. And in the event that anything unfortunate should befall your drink, refer back to the budddy-system rule. Should you lose control over your central nervous system for any reason, you'll be glad you've got your buddy.

Have a Plan

So it's Thursday night, you have no Friday classes, and you're wholly prepared to tie one on. Ok, so you know you're getting drunk tonight. And since we're assuming you are legally of age, and therefore have a right to be regarded as an adult who is making an adult decision, then act like an adult. Get drunk like an adult. What I mean to say is, do it with people you trust, in a setting where you feel comfortable, and with a fully-conceived and readily actionable plan on how not to do anything stupid like get behind the wheel of a car or drunk-dial your ex. Show up with a way home or, failing that, a change of clothes, a toothbrush, and a soft spot to crash for the night. If you're capable of making the decision to drink to the point of getting drunk—and let's be honest, this decision is often a forethought, not an incidental—then you must be capable of making the kinds of decisions that come with responsible drinking. Take care of your drunk self while you're still sober. The hungover version of you will appreciate it.

Don't Overdo It

Part of being an adult is knowing your limits. There's a not-all-that-fine line between drinking to the point of pleasant intoxication and drinking to the point that you can no longer tell the difference between the front door and the dryer. Find that line and learn how to dance in front of it. Pace yourself. You don't need to drink it all at once. Do you know how much Natty Ice is in that keg? Don't worry. You'll get yours. Take your time. You drink faster than you metabolize, so if you're chugging beers, you don't even realize how drunk you're getting until you find yourself trying to explain the theory of quantum mechanics to a girl who is, in actuality, a coat-tree.

Drink at a reasonable pace, and while you're at it, consumer plenty of food and water. Make sure the booze isn't the only thing swimming around in your belly.

Beer Pong Rules Are Not Legally Binding

So you're playing beer pong, and you're losing, which means that, according to the rules, you should be chugging beers. Well, I played beer pong in college and I didn't like to chug beers…because I have a sensitive tummy. What of it? Back off, man.

Anyway, I would collect my beers and drink them at a normal pace, like a human being, and nobody ever revoked my license to play beer pong. Hey, I'll let you in on a little secret about drinking games and rules. They aren't real rules. Dude, it's just an excuse to combine friendly competition and binge-drinking. Do it at your own speed.

Be Bigger Than Peer Pressure

Peer pressure isn't even really the word for it. Nobody's going to make you feel like a tool for refusing a drink or for drawing the line before you've had too much. It doesn't work that way. It's just more likely that you'll drink to feel comfortable in a crowd of other people who are drinking, or that you'll take another shot because everybody else is taking another shot, or you'll just sort of lean into the culture around you where everybody else is drinking a little too much. The point is, peer pressure in college is not explicit. It's more of an enveloping sense that binge drinking is the cultural norm. And depending on the crowds you're hanging out with, it kind of is the cultural norm. But it doesn't have to be your norm. You can distinguish yourself by abstaining on any given occasion you desire, or simply by drinking only as much as you can handle. I promise you, as you advance in life, the ability to put away a dozen drinks in a night will not be regarded as an enviable skill. Don't buy into any campus culture that tells you otherwise.

Get Him Away From the Greek

Speaking of campus culture, there is no place where binge drinking festers more destructively than in the fraternity and sorority system. The almost inherent relationship between binge drinking and initiation hazing is perhaps the force that has most bedeviled campus administrators. The traditions of fraternities and sororities, no matter how debasing or dangerous, remain entrenched in the fabric of campus culture for many universities. This means that even after tragedies like Tim Piazza's death, little has changed in either the method or madness of pledge initiation.

I won't advise you away from rushing a fraternity or sorority. If that is the experience you desire from college, you should seek it. However, know what kind of brotherhood or sisterhood you're joining. Is it the kind that would risk your health, safety and even your life to protect its traditions? Will these be true friends or self-inflicted bullies? Does the fraternity or sorority you seek to join have more to offer than dangerous binge drinking and vile hazing rituals?

Find a house that revolves around actual brotherhood or sisterhood, a context where you can feel comfortable drawing a line and sticking to it. Join on your own terms and protect your power to decide when you've had enough to drink.

Wake Up Call

Of course, it's not just about you. As part of a campus, you have joined a community of your peers. Take responsibility for your community by looking out for your fellow citizens, most particularly those who've had too much to drink. If you're at a party and you see somebody passed out face down in a bag of Doritos, you have two choices. You can take a picture and post it on Instagram, which is really not cool and not something that we recommend, or you can check to make sure this somebody is ok. Determine whether this is a person who needs a big glass of water and a quiet couch or an ambulance. I know you're probably not too excited about calling 911 in the middle of a party, but you could save a life. The sad story of Penn State fraternity pledge Tim Piazza is a terrible cautionary tale. Had even one of his "brothers" called for emergency medical services like a true friend, Piazza might still be alive today.

If you see somebody in alcohol-induced distress or unconsciousness, be a friend.

***

Obviously, that's not everything. I have years of experience at this and one tends to learn quite a few things over that time, some of which cannot be shared here for the sake of decency and decorum. But, presuming you are of legal age, remind me to tell you some of my stories over a few beers one day.

Until then, if you want to be treated like an adult, learn to drink like one.

Take the next step towards your future with online learning.

Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.

Woman working at desk