TALLAHASSEE -- It is late Thursday night across the street from "the top party school in the country," and hundreds of Florida State University students are doing their part to reinforce the image.
The line to get into Potbelly's stretches around the corner of College Avenue. At an outdoor table, a student has vomited and is escorted from the deck. Management calls a cab, and keeps an eye on him. People around him move to avoid the mess, but few others notice.
Inside, people squeeze by each other to reach the bar. Until midnight, women 21 and older drink free, as they do here six nights a week. Another special allows two drinks for the price of one. Students yell to be heard over the live band.
The scene is replicated most nights of the week in Tallahassee, home to two state universities. At the largest, FSU, the culture of drinking is so pervasive that student surveys consistently place the school on an annual list of the biggest party schools in the nation.
Administrators hope the receipt of a national grant to reduce binge and underage drinking will make the university and its host city known for something else: as a kind of test site for reform.
The $700,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to be distributed over five years, will allow the university to devise methods to curb student drinking and track the results.
In recent years, universities have tried a variety of strategies to reduce heavy, episodic drinking among students, an old problem that many administrators believe has reached a new extreme in the 1990s.
Some universities have focused on increased enforcement, others on educating students about how to drink responsibly.
The Florida Board of Regents this week is expected to consider another method: telling parents when their underage children are caught with alcohol on campus. If adopted, each state university will devise a specific plan for contacting parents. The policy is modeled after efforts in Massachusetts and Delaware.
The goal in Tallahassee is to do three things at once: change student acceptance of drinking, reduce their access to alcohol and increase the range of alcohol-free activities offered as alternatives, said Dan Skiles, a director of the student health center at FSU and author of the grant application.
"We'd like to do something before somebody dies," Skiles said. "If you wait until somebody dies, the people are going to say, 'You knew you were the No. 1 party school.'"
The Partnership for Alcohol Responsibility -- a panel of university leaders, students, bar owners, state officials and other community representatives -- has formed to look at possible solutions.
Some early discussions on reducing access include eliminating some kinds of drink specials, requiring bartenders and wait staff to undergo mandatory state training, banning anyone under age 21 from bars, and prohibiting advertisements that feature alcohol specials, Skiles said.
Most of these measures will require legislative approval -- and a buy-in from all players. Skiles and other proponents say they know it will be a tough sell, in the face of lobbyists representing the interests of the beverage industry, restaurants and bar owners.
"We can certainly try," said Winston Scott, assistant vice president of student affairs at FSU. "We need to acknowledge the fact that we need to try."
Universities are experimenting because no one knows the best approach, said Scott, who will coordinate the partnership efforts when he becomes vice president of student affairs in January.
"It's a tough problem and it's a moving target. What worked 20 years ago will not work today," he said. "We don't know exactly what will work."
Some students at FSU say young people will continue to drink and will find a way around restrictions. …