Students, staff and administrators gathered at the College of William and Mary’s Sadler Center Friday to discuss a rise in underage drinking at universities nationwide.
The town hall-style meeting, funded through a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, is part of a larger effort on behalf of the College to prevent and reduce high-risk drinking on campus. It also corresponds with the College’s recognition of Alcohol Awareness Month.
College President Taylor Reveley began the meeting by discussing potential solutions to reducing underage and binge drinking.
“How do we make some progress in dealing with it?” he said. “Of course it helps out when institutions point out the dangers. Of course it helps for institutions to point out the legal and liability obligations.”
Reveley said his own experiences serving on advisory boards of private secondary schools and at Princeton University gave him a better insight to the causes and consequences of underage drinking. During Reveley’s tenure at Princeton, the university began to dedicate $100,000 annually to stage alcohol-free events on campus.
“The subject that you’re going to be talking about is one that I have an absolute interest in,” he said. “I think Princeton is doing better than it used to, but it has in no way solved the problem.”
According to Reveley, the eventual way to deal with underage drinking is to make it unappealing for young people by attaching an amount of shame to it, like the shame attached to smoking and drunk driving. Those negative associations have taken longer to take hold than expected, however.
“I think the solution is going to come when there is serious peer pressure from most of the undergraduates to their colleagues,” he said. “When I was a student, there was no peer pressure not to smoke. There was no peer pressure not to drive after you’ve been drinking … I think it can happen, but it’s taking a lot longer than I expected it to take.”
Dr. Sally Linowski, the director of the Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Prevention at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, followed Reveley’s speech. She began by dispelling several myths about underage drinking.
“College-bound seniors drink less in high school than their noncollege-bound peers,” Linowski said. “There’s something about the college environment that encourages people to drink. It’s a misconception that highly educated people are too smart to drink in highly dangerous ways. In fact, the opposite is true.”
Linowski said risky drinking behavior has become a significant problem on many college campuses across the country, as alcohol-related deaths at universities have increased by nearly 200 percent since 1998.
“It’s important that we change the culture, and I’m here to tell you that we can,” Linowski said.
According to Linowski, the environment surrounding college campuses encourages risky and underage drinking through inconsistent messages about alcohol, ineffective or counterintuitive campus policies, widely available inexpensive alcohol and lack of negative consequences.
Additionally, many of the problems UMass experiences could easily transfer to the College. Fifty-two percent of Amherst, Mass. is aged 15 to 24. The school hosts several Division I athletic teams, has a large Greek presence, is located in a rural setting, and is a public institution.
“You may recognize those as risk factors for high-risk drinking,” Linowski said.
Linowski said the ultimate solution to decreasing instances of dangerous drinking will come from colleges and universities adopting their alcohol policies and responses to meet the changing needs and mentalities of our students.
“If we spent all our time with the 2 percent of our students who are actively addicted to alcohol, we’re missing the majority of our students,” Linowski said.