Father James F. Keenan, S.J.

Binge drinking on college campuses

April 25, 2018

American college campuses have a drinking problem. Here’s a sample of the bracing data produced by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:

  • 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries each year, including motor-vehicle crashes.
  • 696,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted each year by another student who has been drinking.
  • 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape each year.

Much of the literature on college drinking describes a culture of binge drinking. A “binge” is a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration to .08 grams per deciliter or above. For a typical adult, this adds up to 5 or more drinks for men, 4 or more for women, over the course of two hours. 

The problem is not simply one of youth. According to a 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, U.S. college students out-drink their non-college-attending counterparts by significant margins. That study showed that two out of three American college students engage in binge drinking. 

The first six weeks of freshman year can be a vulnerable time for students as they acclimate to a new and discomfiting environment. This can lead to heavy drinking and alcohol-related consequences because of student expectations and social pressures at the start of the academic year.
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism concludes: “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.”

In the summer of 1984, President Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Congress led the nation into some consensus-building on the issue of the minimum drinking age, and so now a person cannot consume alcohol in the United States until the age of 21. How does this law play out on college campuses?

College campuses today have an extensive prohibition culture. Whether universities and police enforce the law and to what degree varies widely. But let’s assume that a considered degree of intolerance for underage drinking is the norm. What do our college students do? The short answer is, in their words, “pre-game” drinking.

Say they are invited to a football tailgating party at their university. They know that everyone over 21 will be drinking. What do they do? They drink in their dorms before leaving for the party. The same goes for other events where others legally drink. By extension, “pre-gaming” becomes the way many students drink before they go out anywhere.

How do they get alcohol? They acquire fake IDs to buy liquor on their own and they buy it from drinking-age upperclassmen in an elaborate delivery system.

Is the 1984 federal drinking law part of the problem? I’m afraid so. Before 1984, college campuses had their own campus bars where students, faculty and staff could eat and socially drink. Drinking had a social context. That context came to an end in 1984. 

Adults cannot socially drink with those under 21. Young people enter, instead, the prohibition culture of pre-game binge drinking. Ostensibly, the law was brought in to curtail young people’s drunk-driving deaths. But, as study after study shows, that has not succeeded.

There are just 12 other countries with a minimum drinking age of 21. There are 16 where alcohol is completely banned for all people, 19 that have no “minimum legal drinking age”; 22 have 16-17 years of age or younger; 116 have 18-19; and five have 20 years of age.

Ask any university police officer or alcohol counselor or undergraduate student what they think could alleviate the problem. After 34 years, many, though not all, will recommend bringing down the drinking age so that we can create a healthier culture on our college campuses.  

Ethics promotes transparency and accountability. Our present law inhibits that. Can we bring college age drinking out into the open? Shouldn’t we? Or do we let young people fall down the rabbit hole of a prohibition culture?