American universities are known for the intellectual rigor of their classes, their high standard of research, and for helping young people prepare for careers in a wide variety of fields. In addition to this, many of them are also known as party schools. For many undergraduates, college is perceived as a time to let loose and be free. For the vast majority, this means copious amounts of drinking and drug use. Above all, however, it means drinking. After all, alcohol is the most popular legal drug in the world and especially among young adults. When high school seniors look forward to their college experience, they are often thinking about the fun times they’ll have at college parties drinking with new friends. Many parents fondly remember the exciting times they themselves had in college, and they are often willing to overlook the excesses of their adult children. The common opinion is that college drinking is safer or more acceptable while someone is young and spry, and it is a widely held belief that no matter how excessively a person drinks in college, they’ll get their act together by the time they graduate. College drinking is normalized in the United States.
While there is nothing wrong with a young adult of legal drinking age having a drink, and it would indeed be unrealistic to expect college students not to experiment with their newfound freedom, the reality is that college drinking can pose serious dangers to students’ lives. This is partly due to the way that college students drink. The vast majority of young adults and adolescents engage in a type of drinking known as binge drinking when they consume alcohol.
Binge drinking is legally defined as a practice of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration above 0.08 g/dl or above. This blood alcohol percentage is associated with severe intoxication and is sufficient to land a person behind bars with a DUI if they are caught behind a wheel — or worse, to have them face manslaughter charges after running someone over. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this blood alcohol percentage is most likely to occur when men consume 5 or more drinks or when women consume 4 or more drinks in less than two hours. For this reason, the term “binge drinking” is generally used colloquially to refer to the activity of trying to drink as much as possible in a short period of time — and not to a specific blood alcohol percentage.
This activity is the quickest and most effective method of getting acutely intoxicated — also known as being drunk. This is the most common form of drinking among college students. Young people are not social or casual drinkers. Unfortunately, while college drinking may appear glamorous and exciting when depicted in TV shows or movies like Animal House, the consequences are often painful, traumatizing, and even fatal.
The majority of college students drink alcohol on a regular basis. In a survey conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 55% of college students between the ages of 18 and 22 reported drinking alcohol in the last month. This may not be that surprising to most people, who expect the rate of college drinking to be much higher. However, a more notable and disturbing statistic is that among young people between the ages of 12 and 20, 90% of the alcohol they consume is consumed via binge drinking. Even though approximately half of all college students do not drink on a regular basis, the latter statistic demonstrates that possibly half the population of a given college drinks to the point of acute intoxication on a regular basis.
The rate of binge drinking is significantly higher for young men, who are two times more likely than women to engage in binge drinking. Four out of every five binge drinks are conducted by males. Unfortunately, research shows that even sober males are already statistically more likely to engage in risky, impulsive, and dangerous behavior. When alcohol is consumed to the point of excess, the result can be extreme disinhibition, which can lead to serious harms. Some of these consequences won’t be remembered the next day, when a young man consumes so much alcohol that they “black out” and experience memory loss, but many of the effects of acute alcohol intoxication stay with a person for life.
Alcohol abuse, and specifically binge drinking, is a leading cause of death in the United States. Every year, approximately 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes. Of these, 9,967 deaths are due to drunk driving collisions. A high percentage of automobile accidents are caused by alcohol intoxication (approximately 31% of all fatal accidents). However, it is also common for people to suffer injuries that are non-fatal, and not just behind the wheel either: alcohol intoxication causes people to take risks, suffer from poor motor control, and even to become prone to violence. Every year 696,000 college students are physically assaulted by a student who has been binge drinking. 97,000 students a year report being sexually assaulted while drinking or by someone who has been drinking. The actual numbers of assaults are likely much higher, given that these assessments are based on students self-reporting.
Even for students who are not injured, assaulted, or killed, binge drinking can have severe consequences. 25% of college students report experiencing poor academic outcomes due to their drinking habits. These outcomes include missing classes, doing poorly on an assignment or exam, falling behind, receiving lower grades, and even dropping out of school. Drinking can also make it more difficult for young men to succeed socially in their new college environments. While alcohol may function at first as a social lubricant, the withdrawal effects that follow a bout of binge drinking tend to make people isolate. The relationship between high alcohol consumption and mental health disorders is also firmly established by research. Perhaps most concerningly, however, the drinking patterns that begin in college (and often high school) do not necessarily come to an end by the time a person graduates. Roughly 20% of college students meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD). Alcohol addiction, left untreated, tends to progress long after a person has left the confines of the college campus.
Despite all of these alarming statistics, a significant number of college students look forward to drinking in college. It is common for students to make their college selection based on a college’s reputation for being a party school. Even students who are naturally more inclined to temperance may end up drinking excessively once they arrive in college. A range of factors motivate college drinking. As discussed already, there is the cultural expectation that college is a time for letting loose. However, the academic pressures associated with rigorous college classes can also drive people to drink. Drinking can be a way of letting off steam, celebrating a job well done, or drowning in sorrow and insecurity. However, college students face far more than just academic stress. For many college freshmen, going to college represents their first experience of living away from the safety and comfort of their families. Without access to their families and accustomed friends, many feel insecure and nervous in a new social environment. Drinking can seem like an essential social lubricant, a tool that allows fearful young people to handle new interpersonal pressures. While this tool may be helpful for a period of time, it generally backfires for students who abuse alcohol.
While most colleges have high quantities of alcohol on campus, some have more than others. Strong drinking cultures are especially common in universities that engage in “Greek” life — ie, sororities and fraternities. These organizations often host drinking events and even require ritualistic drinking as a condition for membership. Colleges where athletic events are prized are also associated with high quantities of alcohol consumption. Schools that are less associated with heavy drinking include commuter schools, community colleges, and schools that emphasize professional enrichment programs.
According to the Princeton Review, below are the top 10 schools where hard liquor is consumed the most:
A different survey was conducted to determine the schools where beer was consumed the most. This list includes:
Binge drinking and alcohol abuse in college students is associated with a wide variety of risks that are both psychological and physical in nature. While some of these consequences occur as immediate results of a single bout of binge drinking, other effects become more apparent over the long term. Common injuries, accidents, and medical conditions that occur as a result of college binge drinking include:
College students often experience these consequences more acutely than older adults. This is partly because college is a time where students have the opportunity to intellectually and emotionally enrich themselves, develop friendships, and network to build their futures. Students who engage in binge drinking are far more likely to deprive themselves of these opportunities. It is likely that they will suffer academically, socially, and set themselves up for a lifetime of struggle for which they are ill-prepared.
Young people tend to believe that they are invincible. Even older adults are often reluctant to seek help for a substance use disorder. When young people abuse alcohol, no matter how severe the consequences are, it is common for them to deny their problems and try to manage on their own. It is important to understand that alcohol use disorder is a legitimate mental condition recognized by psychiatrists and mental health counselors. In order to thrive in college, it is often helpful for young people to have a strong support system that enables them to stay sober.
Sober living homes are profoundly helpful for young college students. At a sober living home near you, your college-aged child can live with other people their age in safe and trigger-free environments. For individuals struggling with a drinking problem, meeting other people who are suffering from the same condition can be a healing and revelatory experience. Alcohol abuse can feel isolating. But by connecting to other young people in recovery, a person may find it far easier to stay sober. One recent study on sober living homes found that residents have lower rates of relapse not only because of the trained and dedicated staff, but because of the strong sober social support networks they develop. Moreover, sober living houses work with young people to help them get their lives on track. If you or your college-aged child is struggling with a drinking problem, help is available.
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