Academic journal article Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education

College High Risk Drinkers: Who Matures out? and Who Persists as Adults?

Academic journal article Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education

College High Risk Drinkers: Who Matures out? and Who Persists as Adults?

Article excerpt


More than 40% of college drinkers are classified as high risk, and of these about 20% will continue this behavior into adulthood. This exploratory study compared the characteristics of high risk college drinkers who matured out with those who remained adult persistent. Respondents (4,428 alumni) completed a survey about college and current drinking habits and personal characteristics. Twenty-six largely behavioral characteristics differed significantly between these populations. Analyses of the adult persistent group found emotional and psychological characteristics distinguished high risk from harmful and dependent drinkers. The study provides the basis for college student affairs and health professionals to consider programming suitable to these distinct groups: college drinkers likely to mature out as adults and those likely to continue as adult persistent high risk drinkers.

Keywords: college drinking, student drinking, high risk drinking, time limited, adult persistent, matured out, alcohol consumption, drinking trajectory, higher education.

Institutions of higher education focus on student drinking because of the numbers of students involved and the implications for serious consequences, which include serious or fatal injuries, assault, sexual abuse, unsafe sex, academic problems, mental health problems, suicide attempts, drunk driving, vandalism, property damage, police involvement, and alcohol dependence (NIAAA, 2002). In 1994, Wechsler made the notion of 'high risk' tangible by defining binge drinking as consuming five or more drinks for men or four or more drinks for women in a sitting, the "5/4 definition" and showing that students consuming alcohol at these levels were at higher risk for multiple negative consequences (Wechsler, et al., 1994). Framing the problem in terms of a single, monolithic group of "high risk drinkers", however, overlooks a different type of risk: the group of students whose alcohol consumption relates to a longer-term problem.

We believe there are two different populations of high risk college drinkers that are of significant concern for institutions. First, "high risk drinkers" according to the 5/4 definition, represent approximately 44% of college students (NIAAA, 2002; Wechsler et al., 1994). However, a significant majority of these high risk drinkers will eventually moderate their drinking to the point where it will not cause adult persistent problems, i.e., "time limited" drinkers who will mature out, (Schulenberg et al, 2001; Jackson et al, 2001). Second, there are other students for whom alcohol problems persist into adulthood and cause life problems, potentially including alcohol use disorders, i.e., "adult persistent".

The dilemma facing institutions today is that there is little systematic evidence to help student affairs or health professionals to distinguish students who will mature out from those who will become adult persistent. Problem drinking in college looks very similar to an alcohol use disorder during other times in life: thirty-one percent of college students meet criteria for a diagnosis of alcohol abuse and 6% for alcohol dependence (Knight, et al., 2002). Yet, it seems that prevention and intervention methods should be different for the student who is in a process of learning about alcohol and will spontaneously remit from this behavior post college than for a student whose drinking pattern is the symptom of a larger, lifelong alcohol use disorder. This study used a quantitative, cross-sectional, retrospective survey-based methodology to explore differences in these two populations of high risk drinkers.

Defining High Risk Drinking

The 5/4 definition has been widely used in research, in colleges as an instigator for social norms marketing campaigns, and by the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Recent criticism characterizes the definition as too sensitive and insufficiently specific (Weingardt, et al. …

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