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Alcohol U.—Underage Drinking at Colleges and Universities


Students face many challenges related to alcohol abuse and binge drinking on campuses all over the Nation. The Surgeon General’s Call to Action To Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking sums up the problem of underage drinking in the college/university population this way:

Alcohol consumption by underage college students is commonplace, although it varies from campus to campus and from person to person. Indeed, many college students, as well as some parents and administrators, accept alcohol use as a normal part of student life…The negative consequences of alcohol use on college campuses are particularly serious and pervasive.”

But When Does College Drinking Really Begin?

Many young people use alcohol and engage in binge drinking before they enter college. Serious drinking problems at colleges and universities often reflect earlier use. According to one study, students who first became intoxicated prior to age 19 are more likely to be alcohol dependent and frequent heavy drinkers, to drive after drinking, and to sustain injuries that require medical attention. The earlier youth use alcohol excessively, the more at risk they become in college. Those who reach college with established patterns of binge drinking and heavy drinking are likely to continue this high-risk behavior. Read full article here

Transitional Stress

A government-supported report says that moving away from familiar networks of support and structure increases risks for underage drinking: “The transition to college involves major individual and contextual change in every domain of life; at the same time, heavy drinking and associated problems increase during this transition.” The article goes on to say that new academic demands, increased independence, and decreased access to parental support and guidance present new challenges in an environment where alcohol use and heavy drinking tend to escalate.

As underage students live and socialize with older students, drinking is modeled—including binge drinking, heavy drinking, and drinking in combination with other high risk behavior—on the behavior of their peers. In this environment, alcohol becomes more available, and norms favorable to alcohol use are solidified. The combination of underage and of-age students complicates prevention and enforcement efforts.

The Culture of College Drinking

The 1978 Hollywood movie, Animal House, and others like it reinforce several unrealistic myths, depicting higher education as a slapstick comedy awash in alcohol. Lists ranking campuses for their partying atmosphere support misperceptions about actual campus alcohol norms and obscure the consequences of excessive drinking.

College culture often promotes excessive drinking as a mainstay of social life. Groups such as fraternities and athletic groups may be settings for extreme partying where alcohol may be readily available.

Older Students Facilitate Underage Drinking

According to one study, students of legal drinking age often provide alcohol to their underage underclassmen (and women) and in settings where little or no attempt is made to prevent underage drinking. The large majority of legal-age students in a study at a Midwestern university, for example, reported that they “had provided and continue to provide alcohol to underage students.” The older students rationalized what they were doing as “safe and responsible,” since they observed certain “rules,” such as not giving alcohol to someone they knew planned to drive.

Incoming freshman often gravitate to house parties organized by and for students and expected to turn a profit for their hosts. The same study reports that on many campuses student social activities revolve around drinking and underage students expect, and are expected to, drink in order to be included.

Underage Drinking Is Not a Harmless Rite of Passage

The National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism Web site lists the harmful effects of excessive alcohol use among college students, including underage drinkers. These alcohol-fueled consequences take an enormous annual toll and include sexual abuse, assaults, unsafe sex, academic problems, health problems (including suicide attempts), alcohol-impaired driving, vandalism, property damage, and police involvement.

Underage Drinking Can Be Prevented at Colleges and Universities

The challenge of preventing underage drinking at America’s institutions of higher education is substantial, but evidence-based prevention strategies have been shown to make a positive difference. The Surgeon General lists such successful tactics in the 2007 Call to Action, a few of which are included here:

  • Educate parents, instructors, and administrators about the consequences of underage drinking on college campuses, including secondhand effects…enlist their assistance in changing any culture that currently supports alcohol use by underage students;
  • Partner with community stakeholders to address underage drinking as a community problem; and
  • Expand opportunities for students to make spontaneous social choices that do not include alcohol (e.g., by providing frequent alcohol-free late-night events, extending the hours of student centers and athletics facilities, and increasing public service opportunities).


Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America developed the Support 21 Toolkit, a collection of free online resources to help community-based organizations respond to calls for lowering the legal minimum drinking age.

College Drinking: Changing the Culture is a “one-stop resource” Web site from The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism for locating research-based information about alcohol use and associated problems among college students of all ages.

Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Violence Prevention helps campuses and their communities through training, technical assistance, free publications, Webinars and other tools. is a Web portal providing access to underage drinking prevention information, materials, and other resources provided by the 15 Federal agencies of the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Underage Drinking Prevention (ICCPUD).

SAMHSA Store isSAMHSA’s clearinghouse of resources on alcohol, drugs, and mental health. Typing “college alcohol” into the search window at the SAMHSA Store site brings up several pages of articles, reports, publications, and video on the subject.

National Association of Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA)is a nonprofit hosting an annual conference on alcohol abuse and other drug prevention. A NASPA Knowledge community focuses on alcohol and drugs and maintains a listserv for those interested in the topic.

The Network Addressing Collegiate Alcohol and Other Drug Issues was established by the U.S. Department of Education in 1987 as a national consortium of institutions of higher education. Its 1,600 members work to develop and implement standards to reduce and prevent alcohol-related problems in institutions of higher education.