A Campus Challenge: Handling Underage Drinking New students heading to college this year have worked hard to get to their new schools, but many often have one critical gap in their education: how to handle alcohol. While schools usually try to punish students for illegal drinking, alternative approaches are being suggested.
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A Campus Challenge: Handling Underage Drinking

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A Campus Challenge: Handling Underage Drinking

A Campus Challenge: Handling Underage Drinking

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

College kids are reporting back to campus, some for the first time. As part of our back to school series this week, we have a story for you about one aspect of the undergrad experience that's changing - maybe. It's a new addition to the college curriculum called Alcohol Education.

COHEN: There is a growing movement on campuses to recognize that underage drinking, even though it's illegal, is a fact of college life. So the thinking goes, why not at least try and teach students how to drink responsibly.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has more.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: It's move-in day on the campus of the University of Southern California near downtown L.A. Here in the lobby of the new North Dorm Complex, freshmen are easing their flatscreen TVs and mini-fridges into the elevators while their parents follow them wheeling huge orange carts loaded with boring stuff like bedding, books and clothes.

Although the atmosphere is festive, nobody's welcoming the school's newest residents with champagne. That's clearly illegal. But it won't stop them from drinking once their folks leave. Anticipating that, USC makes Alcohol Education mandatory before they get to school.

Chris Zacharda is the director of USC's Student Affairs Residential Education. And he says there's good reason for the timing.

Mr. CHRIS ZACHARDA (USC): I think freshman year there's more alcohol than in any of the other years. They're more likely to either test their boundaries and experiment a little bit. By the time they get to be sophomore, juniors and seniors, that luster has worn off. It's not as exciting.

BATES: But while it is, that can be a problem, which is why there's been more focus on binge drinking on campuses in the last several years.

The alcohol/undergraduate equation is something John McCardell grappled with for years as the president of Middlebury College in Vermont. Now retired, he's taken on the job of trying to convince America that the drinking age should be lowered to 18 through a graduated license to drink program called Choose Responsibility.

Mr. JOHN McCARDELL (Former President, Middlebury College): You know, the reality is that alcohol is a part of the lives of 18, 19 and 20-year-olds. And we can deny it. We can try to legislate it away. But in fact it is a presence.

BATES: Traditionally, colleges and parents have had two choices when it comes to underage drinking. One is simply to look the other way and say, oh well, kids drink in college. McCardell believes that's irresponsible. But if adults take the second choice and punish underage students for drinking, it can boomerang with tragic results.

Mr. McCARDELL: And we know perfectly well that all that happens in that case is that alcohol moves behind closed doors, underground, into dark corners, into an even more risky environment.

BATES: Off-campus drinking can lead to sexual assault, violence, and other anti-social behaviors campus authorities can't monitor. Jack McCardell's critics say lowering the drinking age will result in more teenage highway deaths. But highway deaths overall have been trending downward, thanks to factors like air bags and greatly decreased tolerance for drinking and driving.

Drinking is often portrayed as a glamorous activity in our culture. Think James Bond's martinis. But too often drinking on campus looks more like this scene in the slacker comedy "Accepted."

(Soundbite of movie, "Accepted")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) Hey, someone here ordered two dozen kegs?

BATES: There is a third alternative that more and more schools are deciding to use: Alcohol Education. One of the most prevalent programs nationwide was developed by Brandon Busteed. Busteed was the event manager while at Duke and was having a hard time getting many students to attend activities where alcohol wasn't served.

Mr. BRANDON BUSTEED (AlcoholEdu): Alcohol I knew, and I think most college students knew, was going to be a part of social life in college. But I think what really surprised me was not that it was a part, but that it was kind of the crutch for social life.

BATES: So a few years out of Duke, he created something called AlcoholEdu. It's an online self-assessment. Students log on, follow the directions, and after watching several videos on alcohol and its effects, take the test. First they choose a young video guide. Here's my guide, Anna, explaining what one drink really means.

ANNA: Just because a drink comes in one glass or someone ordered one drink, it doesn't mean that what is served is always equal to one standard drink.

BATES: USC's Paula Swinford says some students are a little shocked to hear this.

Ms. PAULA SWINFORD (USC): Students will tell me also that they are surprised by some of the information, particularly what is a drink, because they've been told that you can have one drink an hour.

BATES: Swinford directs USC's Health Promotion and Prevention Services. She says AlcoholEdu does a good job of correcting stuff like that one drink an hour myth. And she says learning how heavy alcohol use can take points off their grade average gets students' attention too. AlcoholEdu is something she wants them to view as basic on their entering school checklist.

Ms. SWINFORD: Get your measles shot, you know, get your loan papers in order, pack your technology, and complete the course.

BATES: Outside, in front of the freshman dorms, seniors Sven Jensen(ph) and Taylor Balinger(ph) are eyeing the incomings and providing a little muscle to help parents get their kids' gear upstairs. Sven says the adults are right. There is a lot of drinking the first few weeks of college.

Mr. SVEN JENSEN (Student): Some people didn't have the chance when they were in high school, so they go crazy with it.

BATES: Taylor says when he first took AlcoholEdu as a freshman, the drinking culture on campus was radically different. It wasn't unusual to see kids wandering about, plastic beer cups in hand, on Saturday night.

Mr. TAYLOR BALINGER (Student): Freshman year, 2004, they - the cops would drive by and on the loudspeaker, for example, they'd be like, hey, can I have a beer too? They were just kind of joking with the kids. Now it's gotten a lot stricter. I wouldn't walk around with an open container now.

BATES: That's good news to Cindy Rain(ph). She and her husband Tal(ph) are moving their daughter in, and she likes USC's message about alcohol use.

Ms. CINDY RAIN (Mother): Even though she hears it from her parents all the time about the hazards of drinking and the, you know, the cons of underage drinking, it's good to be reinforced, I think, by the university.

BATES: Tal Rain hopes both messages sink in.

Mr. TAL RAIN (Father): It's college. People drink. You have to control it. You have to do it appropriately. You have to stay out of trouble. She's pretty levelheaded. We hope for the best.

BATES: AlcoholEdu may be making some headway in doing that. About a million students at over 420 campuses nationwide have taken the program so far. But does it work? USC's Paula Swinford said their data says yes, it's been effective in the short term.

Ms. SWINFORD: We really only know about those first few months. But right now that's enough for me.

BATES: And probably enough for a lot of parents who are hoping their new collegians will drink, if they choose to drink, in a responsible, educated fashion.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: So how much is too much? Get schooled on your blood alcohol curve at our Web site: npr.org.

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