Academic journal article Contemporary Economic Policy

Effects of Heavy Drinking in College on Study Effort, Grade Point Average, and Major Choice

Academic journal article Contemporary Economic Policy

Effects of Heavy Drinking in College on Study Effort, Grade Point Average, and Major Choice

Article excerpt


Public attitudes have shifted from the glorification of heavy drinking portrayed in the movies to condemnation from media, faculty, and parents motivated by the very real problems associated with heavy alcohol use. Student drinking is connected to academic, social, and even criminal problems, as detailed by the Harvard College Alcohol Studies in the 1990s. Among the most common self-reported problems are missing classes and falling behind in school work as a result of occasional and frequent binge drinking (Wechsler et al., 2000). Binge drinking does not necessarily represent clinically diagnosable alcohol dependence or alcoholism, however, and the link between these self-reported problems and long-term academic and postacademic problems has not yet been established.

Clearly the impact of binging on class attendance and participation can indirectly affect grades, but heavy drinking may also have direct effects on grades. Clinical studies show that although small amounts of alcohol may enhance recall, moderate to heavy drinking has negative impacts, both during the period of intoxication and for periods of time after consumption (see Nordby et al., 1999, for a brief review). Drinking may therefore have direct effects on the brain and cognitive ability. Recent evidence correlates alcohol disorders with smaller hippocampal volumes in a group of adolescents aged 13-21 compared to a sample of healthy adolescents (De Bellis et al., 2000), although the causality and long-term effects of alcohol abuse are not yet established. Another recent study has also tentatively linked reduced brain function to alcohol abuse in youth (Deas et al., 2000).

Economic research on the effects of youth drinking has concentrated on education, crime, drunk driving, and labor market outcomes (Cook and Moore, 1994). The effects of drinking on education have been examined on the extensive margin, with Cook and Moore (1993) finding a negative association between total years of educational attainment and youth drinking. Similarly, Mullahy and Sindelar (1989, 1990) find that drinking depresses years of education and that some of the adverse labor market outcomes from drinking come indirectly through this negative education effect. The effects of youth drinking on the intensive margin (study hours and grades) remain largely unknown.

The primary goal of this study is to provide better information about whether drinking, through its effects on study hours and grades, is an educational concern. A secondary motive is to estimate the extent to which the effects of drinking on grade point average (GPA) and choice of major may lead to adverse labor market outcomes after graduation. The negative connection between alcohol use and labor market outcomes is not universally established; some studies find no or even positive correlations between alcohol use and earnings, wages, and fringe benefits, whereas others find negative effects (Kenkel and Wang, 1999). Lower academic effort and achievement for heavy drinkers in college could be one source of reduced productivity in the workplace, contributing to lower estimated earnings for alcohol abusers, because higher grades in college have been positively associated with earnings (Jones and Jackson, 1990; Loury, 1997). Establishing a link between drinking and GPA may provide a partial explanation of the e ffect of alcohol consumption on earnings through lower skill acquisition while in college. Many studies also note the potential for occupational choice to be affected by drinking behavior (Mullahy and Sindelar, 1989) and that the costs of drinking may vary by occupation (Kenkel and Wang, 1999). The choice of academic major may similarly be affected by drinking behavior in college and will be an important determinant of occupational choice and future wages.

As with studies of the effects on labor market outcomes of drinking, two methodological problems of note are present. …

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