Alcohol Use and Academic Status among Mexican American and White Non-Hispanic Adolescents

Article excerpt

Alcohol use is a major problem among American adolescents. In a study by Johnston, O'Malley, and Bachman (1993), 51% of high school seniors reported drinking alcohol in the last month and 28% reported drinking heavily (i.e., 5 or more drinks on one occasion in the last two weeks). Although some studies suggest that the gender gap in alcohol use is narrowing (Gilbert, 1989; Thompson & Wilsnack, 1984), males generally continue to report more alcohol use than do females (Caetano, 1985; Fagan & Pabon, 1990; Gilbert, 1985, 1989; Milgram, 1990). Johnston et al. (1993) noted that 56% of male versus 47% of female high school seniors reported drinking alcohol in the last month, and 36% versus 20%, respectively, reported occasional heavy drinking. Gender differences have been found to be more pronounced among Mexican American adolescents (Chavez & Swaim, 1992). For example, the 1998 National Household Survey (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1988) found that 62% of Latinos versus 37% of Latinas reported recent alcohol use. Although research shows a decline in adolescent alcohol use, it continues to be a major health concern. For example, adolescent drinking is a major contributor to motor vehicle accidents (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1990).

Estimates of adolescent alcohol use and its consequences are likely to be conservative, because most studies do not include youths who drop out of school. Findings indicate that dropouts are more likely to have higher alcohol use rates than do youth who remain in school (Chavez, Edwards, & Oetting, 1989; Chavez, Oetting, & Swaim, 1994; Fagan & Pabon, 1990; Gilbert, 1989; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1990; Mensch & Kandel, 1988). The 1992 National Health Interview Survey, which included adolescents aged 12-19, found that 63% of dropouts, versus 55% of youths who remained in school, reported ever using alcohol (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1994). Further, 22% versus 17%, respectively, reported episodes of heavy drinking.

Despite the fact dropouts report higher rates of alcohol use, few studies have examined the co-occurrence of these two problems among ethnic minorities (Fagan & Pabon, 1990; Mensch & Kandel, 1988). This gap in research may be particularly problematic in light of the fact that some ethnic groups appear more vulnerable to dropping out than do others. For example, Mexican American youths have extremely high dropout rates when compared with their White non-Hispanic counterparts. The U.S. Department of Education (1992) estimated a dropout rate of 35.3% for Mexican Americans versus 8.9% for White non-Hispanics. Many researchers believe that these figures underestimate the extent of the problem, putting the Mexican American dropout rate in the 45 - 50% range (Carter & Wilson, 1991; Chavez et al., 1989, 1994).

Although Mexican American adolescents are at higher risk for dropping out than are their White non-Hispanic counterparts, research has not clearly established whether dropping out of school places Mexican Americans at as high a risk for alcohol use and misuse as it does for White non-Hispanics. Discerning the relationship between dropping out and alcohol use among Mexican Americans is important for several reasons. First, Hispanics constitute one tenth of the total U.S. population (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1990). The Bureau of the Census (1995) also reports that the Hispanic population has grown by 28% since 1990, as compared with a 6% growth rate for the population as a whole, making them one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the country. Second, Mexican Americans are the largest Hispanic subpopulation, accounting for 60.3% of all Hispanics in the U.S. and 80% in the Southwest. Third, not only are Mexican Americans the largest Hispanic group, they are also the youngest. These demographic characteristics have far-reaching implications for society, given that as many as 50% of Mexican Americans drop out of high school and that dropping out has been found to be associated with higher rates of alcohol use. …