Are America's College Students Majoring in Booze?

Article excerpt

The age-old activity of drinking, once considered a rite of passage on college campuses, has fallen under increased scrutiny. Some researchers report that alcohol consumption has reached "epidemic" proportions and are calling for wide-ranging changes on campus. More moderate voices hope to teach students to drink responsibly.

To most Americans, alcohol consumption by college students is as natural and expected as graduating in June. But according to the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, or CASA, at New York's Columbia University, student drinking is becoming a major problem that educators ignore at their peril.

A May report, Rethinking Rites of Passage: Substance Abuse on America's Campuses, uses terms such as "epidemic" and "crisis" to describe alcohol use - and abuse - at colleges and universities. The situation is so serious, the report concludes, that if circumstances don't change, a significant segment of the current generation of American college students will be lost to alcoholism and its aftereffects: wrecked careers, disastrous personal relationships and early death.

But not everyone is buying these claims or the conclusions. Ruth Engs, a professor of applied health science at Indiana University and longtime alcohol researcher, is one such naysayer. "There is no epidemic, there is no crisis," she says. "Students in Western culture have been drinking since the 12th century and will continue to do so.

Engs levels her greatest skepticism at the report's all-encompassing recommendations for change, including the transformation of what Jeffrey Merrill, CASA|s vice president for policy and research, calls "the culture on campus."

The old campus culture glorified drinking as macho, natural and glamorous, explains Merrill. The new culture must regard drinking - especially heavy drinking - as "aberrant behavior" and "totally unacceptable."

To that end, the CASA report recommends that every campus undertake efforts to reeducate and retrain the young with the aim of discrediting the act of drinking as a "rite of passage" for students on their way to adulthood. But, says Engs, even if that aim is desirable and human nature so malleable, "it is too grand a scheme ever to work. It is ridiculous to expect colleges and universities to do more than they are already doing."

The report, which produced no new material but compiled data from a variety of recent surveys and publications, recounted that 42 percent of all college students engage in binge drinking (defined as consuming five or more drinks at one sitting). Among those who drink, the report concludes, a higher number are drinking more heavily than ever before. In Merrill's words, "What is startling is that more than one in three students are now drinking for the purpose of getting drunk."

But these are figures and statements that lead Engs to comment that "where they get this information is the really big question:" She calls the CASA report "sloppy, with no peer review" and says it contains no careful explanation of how the information was extrapolated.

Engs points to a study she produced with colleague David J. Hanson of the State University of New York, Potsdam, which covers the decade from 1982 through 1991. During that period, Engs notes, the data they collected show that the percentage of student drinkers decreased from 82.4 percent to 78.8 percent, the total number of drinks consumed per week fell from 14.3 to 12.8 and there was no change in the percentage of heavy drinkers - hardly an indication that alcohol consumption has become rampant or dangerous to students. Three-quarters of student drinkers, she says, "were drinking moderately and responsibly."

According to Merrill, however, it's more honest to focus on negative drinking patterns. For example, CASA reports that 35 percent of female students are drinking heavily. That's a dispiriting finding, he says, because women are more prone than men to suffer from alcohol-related illnesses such as cirrhosis. …