November 1, 1999
By MICHAEL WENTZEL
Giving college students accurate information about how many students drink and how much they drink can reduce alcohol abuse and its consequences, research from Hobart and William Smith Colleges shows.
A program at the Geneva colleges based on the research will be cited this week as a model for innovative and effective alcohol-abuse prevention by the U.S. Department of Education at a national conference in Albany.
Hobart and William Smith is one of only seven schools in the country whose program was selected by the education department.
"The program has led to significant reductions in misperceptions of peer norms, reductions in heavy binge drinking behavior, and substantial reductions in related harm," the department said in an announcement.
Drinking is both a rite of passage and a persistent, serious problem on most college campuses.
A 1996 Harvard School of Public Health survey of more than 17,000 students found that 84 percent drank during the school year. Almost 20 percent qualified as frequent binge drinkers -- five or more drinks at one sitting for men or four drinks for women.
Some colleges, such as the Rochester Institute of Technology, have banned alcohol from dormitories. The State University College at Brockport notifies the parents of any student involved in an alcohol violation and removes a student from the residence halls after a second offense.
In addition to other programs, Hobart and William Smith has targeted the perceptions of students.
"Students think their peers are drinking a lot more than they actually do," said H. Wesley Perkins, a professor of sociology at the colleges who has conducted much of the research.
"And students who drink a whole lot think everyone else drinks like them. They're both wrong," he said. "The effect of these misperceptions is that students tend to start drinking more and more heavily in accordance to what they think the norm is. They start following imaginary peers."
Perkins has researched student perceptions since 1982. He recently analyzed anonymous surveys of students at about 100 other colleges and found the same false perceptions of drinking: fewer students drink than students believe.
"If you can get out the message of the true norms or at least reduce the misperceptions, you at least reduce the pressure on students who don't want to drink that much and increase the pressure on those who want to drink a lot because they feel they are not in the majority anymore," Perkins said. "The result is students reduce alcohol consumption."
In 1996, Perkins teamed with David Craig, a professor of biochemistry at Hobart and William Smith, to develop an alcohol-education program. It includes a course taught by the two professors on the social and chemical consequences of abuse and a media campaign that attacks students' perceptions.
Research results are turned into "campus factoids" that are displayed on the college computer network. Students also can browse the online research data.
One factoid, for example, states that while most students believe that everyone drinks heavily at parties, research shows that the majority of seniors drink four drinks or less or don't drink at all.
Most students believe more than half of their peers drink and drive when research shows about 15 percent do.
The factoids also are displayed on posters and published in the college newspaper.
In 18 months since the program began, frequent binge drinking has dropped 21 percent. Consequences of heavy drinking also have declined significantly.
"Students come to college with these misperceptions," Perkins said. "If they are left unchallenged, they grow and students drink more."
At other schools, such as the University of Arizona and Northern Illinois University, that use similar perception programs, binge drinking has declined about 20 percent.
"You don't have to preach. That doesn't work anyway," Perkins said. "All you are doing is telling the truth about what they are doing. It doesn't get rid of all drinking. The primary goal is to reduce high-risk drinking."
As a model program, the U.S. Education Department will give Hobart and William Smith a grant of $74,454 to continue.
Perkins and Craig are working with middle and high schools in Seneca County to introduce a similar program there.
Student perceptions about drinking
College students think that more students drink than actually do and that more alcoholic beverages are consumed than actually are. When students are given realistic information about the amount of drinking, drinking and its consequences decline.
After an 18-month intensive program to correct student perceptions about drinking at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, students reported:
Frequent binge drinking -- down 21 percent.
Property damage after drinking -- down 36 percent.
Missing class after drinking -- down 31 percent.
Unprotected sex after drinking -- down 40 percent.
Memory loss after drinking -- down 25 percent.
Source: H. Wesley Perkins and David Craig, professors, Hobart and William Smith Colleges.