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Michael P. Haines: Social norms approach could reverse UW's party school status

By Michael P. Haines
August 25, 2003

You 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.

Yes, 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.

Is the UW-Madison an exception? Probably not, but no one believes it, including the students.

Before 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.

The 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.

The 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.

As 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.

The 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.

When 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, 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.

Get 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 to celebrate.

Michael 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: