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The Daily Illini Online
published Friday, August 29, 2003

Label is nothing to celebrate
The Princeton Review, one of the major resources for college-bound students and their parents, recently issued its "Top Party School" designations. While much of the information provided by the Princeton Review is useful, the designation of which schools are best for partying is not, since it undermines the work done over the years to address alcohol abuse and injures the reputations of the colleges, students and the surrounding communities. How? By promoting a powerful perception that alcohol abuse, illegal drug use, substance abuse and excessive behavior are the norm among the student body. If students think this constitutes normal behavior, they may feel pressure to emulate it because "everybody's doing it."

However, that perception is wrong. In fact, nearly two-thirds of college students drink moderately, infrequently or not at all—hardly the perception that the general public has today about college students. But before campus health officers and administrators run out and implement scare tactic campaigns that include tight restrictions on social functions and stiff penalties in misguided attempts to address alcohol abuse, they should consider that those approaches have proven ineffective. In fact, the University of Colorado at Boulder ranks as this year's top party school despite its six-year participation in A Matter of Degree, an alcohol abuse prevention program sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This program has embraced and employed those kind of heavy-handed measures.

Instead, administrators should realize that the most effective method of curbing substance abuse on college campuses is a scientific approach called social norms. The strategy of a social norms approach is to consistently communicate the truth to students about what the majority of their peers actually think and do—using credible data drawn from the college's own student population. The resulting messages to students, delivered via variety of media, are positive, since research consistently shows that the norm for student behavior is one of moderation and safety.

When students learn about the true norm, it has a positive impact on their perceptions and their behavior. The misperception of excessive substance abuse among their peers is dispelled and, as a result, moderation and safety become more prevalent. Colleges that inform their students about the actual norms of moderation and safety have achieved an average 20 percent reduction in high-risk drinking in only two years. Some of the schools where this approach has been used effectively include the University of Arizona, University of Virginia, Northern Illinois University and Hobart and William Smith Colleges, to name a few.

Further information about social norms is available on the Web Site of the National Social Norms Resource Center at, and in a new book called "The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Substance Abuse," edited by H. Wesley Perkins, Ph.D. Both resources contain numerous case studies of effective social norms campaigns and steps to guide campuses in implementing such programs and correcting the kind of misperceptions that the Princeton Review's Annual Party School List unfortunately help to promote.

Michael P. Haines
National Social Norms Resource Center

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