They are stories that make every parent's heart ache. On Nov. 10, University of Michigan sophomore Byung Soo Kim celebrated his 21st birthday by trying to drink 21 shots of whisky. He downed 20, then passed out, turned blue and stopped breathing. As Kim lay dying in a Michigan hospital later that next night, seven college students hopped into a Jeep 500 miles away on the campus of Colgate University. Moments later, the driver, a Colgate student who authorities say was dangerously intoxicated, veered off the road and struck a tree, killing four of the passengers. And by the time Monday classes began, five proud families who'd sent their children away to school were busy planning their funerals.
As tragedies like these fill the evening news, they're increasing the anxiety for parents of college-bound students. While this year's seniors winnow through applications, experts see families beginning to consider campus alcohol abuse as a factor in college selection. Surveys show that just under half of all college students drink excessively (defined as five drinks for males and four for females in a single sitting--a proportion that hasn't budged despite a decade of work to reduce it. Even for families who trust their children to abstain, steering clear of campuses with rampant abuse can still be smart, since sober students can suffer from the assaults, sex crimes and poor academic environments that go with heavy drinking. Finding out just how much drinking goes on at different schools isn't easy, but a variety of organizations are trying to help. Says Bill Modzeleski of the U.S. Department of Education: "We're trying to get families to understand there are schools out there focusing on these issues, so they can factor that into their college selection."
That's a message Cat O'Shaughnessy already understands. As the relative of a recovering alcoholic, she was determined to find a college where she didn't have to drink to fit in. That resolve grew after visiting schools that seemed awash in liquor. "You'd walk down the dorm hallways on Saturday afternoon and people would still be puking," she says. O'Shaughnessy didn't consider schools where fraternities dominated social life. On campus tours she grilled students about the party scene. She liked what she found at George Washington University. "The urban environment in Washington, D.C., made her feel like the campus extended beyond tailgating and Friday-night parties," says Andrew Bryan, a college consultant who helped with her search. O'Shaughnessy, now a freshman, has sipped a few drinks, but she happily spends most weekend nights at dance clubs or watching DVDs.
Reliable school-by-school data on student drinking isn't readily available. The best-known ranking of "party schools," done by The Princeton Review, is based on student opinions, and its editor admits it's not scientific. Experts offer other rules of thumb. …