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Michigan State University (MSU) Students Don't Fit 'Party School' Image

March 1, 2005
By Dennis P. Martell, Michigan State University
Lansing State Journal [Letter to the Editor]

The best kept secret on the campus of Michigan State University is that the reality of alcohol use and abuse differs from the exaggerated perceptions. The truth is that alcohol use and abuse has been trending down for the last 10 years and all indicators are that protective behaviors are up and harmful consequences are down.

What does continue to exist, and is problematic, is the constant vilifying of college students as "out of control" drinkers who must be "scared" and policed into submission.

The National College Health Assessment survey, which we have been using since 2000 on the campus of MSU to measure perceptions and behaviors, has shown that the majority of our students are either not drinking or are moderately drinking - and most use one or more protective behaviors to reduce the harm when they choose to drink.

While many outsiders still perceive that MSU has a "party school" image, the fact is that the students who attend MSU don't share it. In our 2003 Survey of Social and Academic Life, 83 percent of students responded that "Academic reputation" influenced their decision to attend MSU, compared to only 4.6 percent who said "party reputation" influenced them "a lot."

Additionally, 83 percent of our students report that they make "academics" their first priority "all or most" of the time.

Keeping football tailgating safe should not only focus on changing the behavior of our students. Our 2004 Celebration study indicates that less than half of the people who tailgate at the tennis courts are even MSU students. MSU students believe in responsibility and they report in great numbers that they "disapprove of MSU students drinking to the point of passing out" (94 percent), and "disapprove of getting into fights or arguments due to drinking" (98 percent). We need to listen to the students, instead of promulgating misperceptions about their behaviors and beliefs.

Prevention of alcohol problems on campus relies on multiple strategies, including social norms campaigns used widely on campuses across the nation.

Our data reveal from 2000 to 2004:

1) The average number of drinks that students perceive that a "typical" MSU student had the last time they partied declined significantly.

2) The average number of drinks that students report consuming the last time they partied declined steadily.

3) Students' use of various protective behaviors increased, and the percentage of students who report experiencing various negative consequences as a result of their drinking has steadily declined.

The National Research Council and Institute of Medicine's 2004 publication "Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility" states: "It appears that well-designed norming campaigns can contribute to a reduction in quantity of drinks consumed by college students." It recommends that "Social norming messages should continue to play a major role" in campus campaigns to reduce alcohol problems."

Published studies show that the social norm approach is working and does change perceptions and behavior.

To say that social norms theory and practices applied here at MSU, "... hasn't helped with MSU's problems of excessive drinking," (as claimed in Robert Hammond's Viewpoint, Feb. 24) is incorrect, and a misperception that should be corrected.

Dennis P. Martell is coordinator of health education at Michigan State University and served as the research and policy adviser to the school's "Alcohol Action Team."