Scott Walters, professor of behavioral health at University of North Texas Health Science Center, looked at data gathered from surveys of 77,000 incoming freshman. The students were questioned about their drinking behavior during the two months before college started and during their first month of freshman year.
Not only were freshman drinking more in fall than in summer, but they were also drinking more alcohol in a shorter period of time, said Walters, who published the study last year in Addictive Behaviors. “Once college starts, students who do drink get less careful about pacing themselves.”
Cleveland and his colleagues also studied incoming freshmen and found most students shift up one category. Non-drinkers become light drinkers, and light drinkers start bingeing. Most worrisome was the finding that the heavy-drinking group increased from 8 percent of the sample in the summer to 28 percent by fall of freshman year.
However, the research also shows that parents and peers can bring those numbers down, Cleveland said.
In his study, Cleveland found that when parents talked to their kids about drinking and drug use, it had a positive effect.
The intervention involved parents reading a 35-page handbook and discussing it with their kids. If students were nondrinkers going into college, the intervention helped keep them nondrinkers. Students who already were heavy drinkers but received parent intervention were less likely to remain in that group. (Parents can find useful talking points at collegedrinkingprevention.gov.)
“Parents need to talk to their children ahead of time and not stop talking to them,” Walters said. “Parents can’t count on the college to orient student to the perils of campus life. It’s the parent’s job. Stay on them.”
Universities have also implemented programs to help educate students about the biological and social effects of alcohol before they get to campus. Freshman at the University of Miami must complete a two-part online course called AlcoholEdu that is used at more than 500 colleges across the country. Claudia Arias, the dean of student affairs, said the school has seen a decrease in alcohol consumption in recent years, and although she didn’t think the online course was the only reason, she said that a combination of support and education certainly helps.
Although parents had the greatest influence and educational programs can help, Cleveland’s studies also found that peers could play a positive role. When older students talked to incoming students about their academic goals and drinking behaviors and got them to see when the two did not align, the younger students drank less.
Schools can reduce student drinking by reporting its prevalence. At most schools, 60 percent of students are either nondrinkers or drink very lightly, said experts. Yet students typically overestimate how many are drinking and how much.
“I tell incoming freshmen that not all students at UCF party and do drugs, so don’t be something you’re not,” Davis said. But for those kids who come into college and want to experiment, “all I can say is do it in a safe environment and do it responsibly.”
Herald writer Anna Edgerton contributed to this report.