College Drinking Raising Concerns

Article excerpt

Drunken students have become more than a familiar part of college life.

They increasingly are regarded by college administrators as one of the most critical problems facing universities.

Despite education efforts of the past decade, binge drinking persists on many campuses. And at least one national study indicates it has intensified among students who drink the most.

Drinking habits that might seem a normal state of affairs at college for some students and alumni are viewed with alarm by those who think universities should intervene.

Following the lead of state universities in Massachusetts and Delaware, the Florida state university system is considering notifying the parents of underage drinkers who are caught on campus.

Other universities are experimenting with strengthened enforcement of existing alcohol policies, or are going dry altogether.

National studies indicate about 40 percent of college students engage in heavy, episodic drinking. And studies and police have found alcohol plays a role in many crimes that occur on campus.

Drunken students interrupt other students' time for study and sleep. Some students become abusive. And some drink themselves to death.

"It can't just be dismissed as being a part of college life anymore," said Daniel Carter, vice president of Security On Campus Inc., a non-profit organization that monitors crime on campuses.

The push for greater flexibility in notifying parents of troubles on campus came from Virginia, where five students died in alcohol-related incidents in 1997.

Through the Higher Education Act of 1998, Congress amended a federal law that prohibits the release of student information, allowing universities to notify parents of alcohol or drug-related offenses committed by students under age 21.

It is not clear whether Florida law conflicts with this authorization. The state university system is reviewing the matter.

But parental notification raises the question of what role the universities should take in informing parents of the activities of adult children.

The idea was suggested by Steve Uhlfelder, a state Board of Regents member who had read of the notification policy in other states and thought it made sense.

Informing parents is designed to be helpful, not punitive, he said. If even a small percentage of students talk with a parent about a drinking problem, the effort is worthwhile, he said.

"All it does is force a parent to have a conversation with their student," he said.

The issue is worth considering, said Jim Heekin, a regent from Orlando. But he has his own questions about how far the universities should go.

If parents can be told of drinking violations, what about academic grades?

Heekin, who has three children at the University of Florida, said college students should be learning what it means to be an adult.

"At some point they need to take responsibility for their own actions."

But the threat of Mom and Dad finding out might be enough to control some students, said Alisa Ayres, a graduate student at UF.

Her younger sister will enter the university as a freshman next fall. Ayres could see a phone call or a letter home provoking a reaction.

"My parents would definitely be upset," Ayres said. ". . . They could tell her, `Come home, if you're going to party.'"

BINGE DRINKING

For men, binge drinking is defined by researchers as drinking five or more beers or other alcoholic beverages in a sitting. For women, four drinks is the threshold.

Using those guidelines, a national study conducted in 1993 by the Harvard School of Public Health found 44 percent of college students had participated in binge drinking in the two weeks preceding the survey.

In 1997, Harvard resurveyed the 130 schools that participated, and found little had changed. …