Drying up college drinking

URI hosts a conference where officials from four schools share ideas on turning the tide.

08:10 AM EDT on Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Journal Staff Writer

NEWPORT -- The horror stories grab national headlines: a student dies after drinking more than 21 shots of alcohol on his 21st birthday, fatal car crashes, riots after football games, date rapes.

But to the experts, the everyday problems of college drinking are no less troubling. This week, a group of national experts huddled in a Newport hotel to immerse themselves in the culture of college drinking.

"It's an enduring problem, and it's not getting better," said Ralph W. Hingson, of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The solution, the experts agree, requires the involvement of entire communities: students, faculty, police, parents, landlords, elected officials and bartenders.

More and more colleges have found that cracking down on campus partying only displaces the problem, sending it into the surrounding neighborhoods.

Once known as a top party school, the University of Rhode Island is emerging as a national model for its community approach to college drinking.

Five years ago, URI officials and Narragansett residents and officials teamed up to address the drinking problem.

Since then, the URI-Narragansett coalition has devised leases with strict consequences for wild parties, cracked down on underage drinkers and involved fraternities in community-service projects.

Last week, the Narragansett police cited 24 people, including URI students and former students, with underage drinking in what school officials called an example of a community effort to reduce alcohol abuse.

"It's the things we do day-in and day-out that prevent tragic occurrences," said Mark D. Wood, an associate professor of psychology at URI and a principal investigator in studying campus alcohol abuse.

Officials from Western Washington University, Wake Forest University and Ohio State University took part in the conference at the Marriott hotel in Newport. URI sponsored the two-day gathering, which ended yesterday.

Prompted by widespread rioting after a football game, administrators at Ohio State said they reached a turning point on the drinking issue. They cracked down on game-day revelries and recruited dozens of hardened student drinkers to discuss ways to reduce alcohol abuse. The school now has a class in which students receive academic credit for studying the issue.

"Too often we are preaching to the choir. We want to include the drinkers. We want to include the partiers," said Wood.

THE STATISTICS are grim. Between 1998 and 2001, there were more than 1,700 college-age alcohol-related deaths, according to one national study. In that same period, 500,000 students were injured because of drinking.

"You take the most risks during your college years," said Cynthia K. Buettner, the program director of the College of Ecology at Ohio State.

Counseling high-risk drinkers, the experts said, is not easy because most students never admit to having a problem and therefore never come in contact with counseling.

According to Roger W. Hartman, of the National Institute on Alcohol, Abuse and Alcoholism, high school students headed for college drink less than high school students not bound for college.

But once students get to college, they drink more than young people who do not attend college, Hartman said.

The experts said college students are compelled to drink by peer pressure, the experience of being away from home, the enticement of the alcohol industry, and simply because they think it's fun.

"There are those students who say 'I have a right to drink,' " said Robert H. DuRant, a professor studying drinking issues at Wake Forest University and other schools.

DuRant said that attitude has been ingrained in some college cultures for generations.

He cited one prestigious southern school, which he declined to name, where an alumnus offered to build an undergraduate dormitory with one stipulation: that it serve alcohol. DuRant said the school did not agree to the stipulation.

Wood said URI officials are trying to engage the "silent majority" of students who are serious about studying and reject wild partying.

URI is also trying to improve relations between students and Narragansett residents by organizing events such as an Earth Day cleanup. The idea is that the more invested students are in the community, the more they realize the consequences of loud parties and trash.

Bill DeJong, of the Boston University School of Public Health, said "there is a perception among some administrators that they have to soft-pedal" their approach to drinking infractions to make the school more attractive to prospective students.

DeJong praised URI President Robert L. Carothers for dispelling that theory.

In 1995, Carothers took a hard line, banning alcohol at all social and athletic events. He implemented a "three strikes" policy in which a student found guilty of underage or public drinking is fined $50 for the first offense; fined $100 and ordered into counseling for the second offense, and suspended for a year for a third offense.

"Carothers said it works to be disciplined," said DeJong. "The number of applicants went up, the quality of students went up."