P. Haines: Social norms approach could reverse UW's party school status
Michael P. Haines
August 25, 2003
can bet the administrators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are
not celebrating the college's designation as the No. 2 party school
in the U.S. by Princeton Review. Instead, they're tackling how to curb
the alleged alcohol abuse and clean up the school's reputation.
I said alleged alcohol abuse. Research has proven that college students
drink far less than the public, campus administrators and even their
fellow students perceive. In fact, nearly two-thirds of college students
drink moderately, infrequently or not at all.
the UW-Madison an exception? Probably not, but no one believes it, including
campus health officers and administrators run out and implement scare
tactics, tight restrictions on social functions and stiff penalties
as means of controlling alcohol consumption among students, they should
consider that those approaches have never been proven to work.
most effective method of curbing substance abuse on college campuses
is a scientific approach, based in fact, called social norms. The strategy
of a social norms approach is to communicate the truth about peer norms
in terms of what the majority of students actually think and do, all
on the basis of credible data drawn from the college's own student population.
resulting messages to students, delivered via a variety of media, are
positive ones. The norm for student behavior is actually one of responsibility,
safety and moderation, because the research proves that this is how
the majority of students behave. When students learn about the true
norm, they begin to adhere to it more and more.
a result, the actual norm becomes even more moderate as the initial
misconception of excessive substance abuse among the student population
becomes reversed. Colleges that educate students about actual, normal
student behavior are proven to achieve an average 20 percent reduction
in high-risk drinking in only two years.
approach has been implemented successfully by colleges large and small,
including the University of Arizona, Northern Illinois University, and
Hobart and William Smith Colleges, to name a few. Federal and state
agencies - including the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Education, Department
of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration and the National Science Foundation -
have supported social norms initiatives through funding.
a college gets a bad label, its students, faculty and even the surrounding
community all pay a price. The UW-Madison should act now to start changing
its partying reputation and enhancing its standing in the academic world
and in the local area by implementing a social norms program. All it
takes to get started is a visit to the Web site of our National Social
Norms Resource Center at www.socialnorms.org,
or a minimal investment in a new book called "The Social Norms
Approach to Preventing School and College Substance Abuse," edited
by H. Wesley Perkins. Both resources contain case studies of effective
social norms campaigns and steps to guide the university in implementing
such a program.
started, work the program and measure the results. The UW-Madison might
lose its top party school designation, but it will have a real reason
P. Haines is director of the National Social Norms Resource Center,
which is part of the Social Science Research Institute at Northern Illinois
University in DeKalb. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.