Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Fuller Picture Emerges of College Drinking ; for the First Time, a Study Tallies Number of Alcohol-Related Deaths

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Fuller Picture Emerges of College Drinking ; for the First Time, a Study Tallies Number of Alcohol-Related Deaths

Article excerpt

Alcohol abuse has emerged as one of the biggest social problems on college campuses in the 1990s. Rape, assaults, property damage - all are part of the numbing toll drinking contributes to.

But the question persists: How many students actually die due to alcohol abuse?

Now a confidential new study begins to answer that question for the first time - and the results may accelerate sobriety measures on campuses across the country.

The internal report, done by an arm of the US Department of Education (DOE), identifies 84 student deaths in alcohol-related circumstances at colleges and universities nationwide since 1996. While this statistic is alarming enough, many college officials and even the study's authors say it vastly underplays the scope of the problem.

"This information at best provides a baseline ... and is undoubtedly a far underestimate of the actual number of such deaths," says the study by DOE's Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention (HEC) in Newton, Mass.

Despite its limitations, the report is the first attempt by an organization to report the national dimensions of the tragedy - and gather the number of alcohol-related deaths at individual schools. "For me the real story is, why isn't anyone reporting this data?" says William DeJong, director of the HEC.

Alcohol-related crimes must be reported by law. Yet there is no federal requirement to report drinking-related student deaths. So there is no comprehensive source for national data. Instead, the HEC report was compiled by patching together information by e-mail, numbers from other researchers, and news reports.

Without comprehensive statistics, analysts like Dr. DeJong say it's hard to know whether anti-alcohol policies are working. Some campuses are rigorously trying to curb abuse, while others are not.

Binge drinking

About 42 percent of students "binge" regularly - drink to get drunk, according to a 1997 Harvard School of Public Health study. Yet spending on programs to stem abuse remains relatively low. Four- year colleges in the United States earmark on average about $13,179 per year each (not including salaries), according to a 1997 survey of 330 schools.

Earlier this month, however, 113 colleges and universities did band together to launch a high-profile advertising campaign.

"Higher education needs to take the alcohol-abuse issue more seriously," says David Anderson, associate professor of education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who conducted the survey. "We have to make a reasonable and diligent effort, and I don't think most campuses are doing that."

Dr. Anderson's study found that two-thirds of all property damage, 64 percent of violent behavior, 42 percent of physical injury, 37 percent of emotional difficulty, and 38 percent of poor academic performance could be attributed to alcohol abuse. …

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