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Binge drinking vs. critical thinking

Penn State's method of paying local bars to close is not a panacea for alcohol abuse by students. But it shows how schools are trying new ways to end binge drinking. They must renew their focus on clear, critical thinking.

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A group of Ball State University students play a drinking game during an off-campus party in 2004.

AP Photo

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For decades, colleges have tried many ways to prevent students from abusing alcohol. But the latest method by Pennsylvania State University may be the most costly. This weekend, the university will pay nearby taverns and bottle shops to shut down. A few big establishments will receive as much as $7,500 for turning off the tap.

For many Penn State undergrads, this particular weekend has become especially saturnalian. In 2007, after the school moved its spring break away from St. Patrick’s Day, a few students protested by designating an earlier weekend for heavy drinking (“State Patty’s Day”). As the event steadily got out of hand, Penn State decided last year to start paying for an alcohol-free downtown, hoping to curtail the flow of liquor, especially to underage students tempted to break the law.

The curb on binge drinking worked, up to a point. One sign: Alcohol-related crime fell that weekend by nearly 40 percent from the year before.

Despite the unusual expense, Penn State’s effort is worth watching. Schools of higher education have yet to convince many students, especially freshmen, that drinking is not an obligatory rite of passage, a social necessity to get along, or a harmless activity. (According to the National Institutes of Health, 1,825 college students die annually because of alcohol-related incidents.)

Some schools admit their own responsibility by promoting their non-educational amenities, such as a strong party culture or fraternities and sororities that are loosely controlled. Many are also becoming alarmed that female students now exceed the government-suggested limit on alcohol consumption more often than male students do.

Besides the worry over the bodily dangers of student drunkenness, schools also wonder about the potential damage to their very purpose: learning.

In 2009, the Association of American Colleges and Universities decided students must develop habits of “critical thinking” in order to earn a degree. A 2011 study, however, showed at least 45 percent of students showed no statistically significant improvement in their critical thinking skills after two years in college. The causes are many, but drinking may be one of them.

Schools have yet to come up with sure-fire ways to persuade students not to lose control of their mental abilities by choosing to drink. In 2002, one study found nearly a third of college students abuse alcohol. In that same year, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism issued a “call to action” for colleges to take the problem seriously. But the impact has not been what many had hoped.

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In 2011, Dartmouth College started a new initiative with 31 other schools known as the Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking. “No single institution has found the silver bullet,” said Dartmouth’s then-President Jim Yong Kim, who now heads the World Bank. Working together, the schools are trying a variety of techniques to curb drinking relying on rigorous testing. They are showing some initial success.

Some schools are trying severe sanction for violating rules on alcohol. Others preempt such behavior with personal intervention and educational programs. Some offer popular nondrinking events on Friday evenings.

One effort delays the recruitment of freshmen by fraternities and sororities until spring. Other schools set rules on pre-game tailgate parties.

Changing the social culture of campus drinking remains a challenge. The best techniques involve peer pressure, such as training volunteers to act as “sober monitors” who can prevent excessive or illegal drinking before it starts.

The most valuable lesson that a college can teach students is to cherish their ability to think clearly and refrain from chemical abuse. Short of that inner motivation, schools like Penn State will need to keep inventing new ways to simply curb student behavior.

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