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What Peer Educators and Resident Advisors (RAs) Need to Know About College Drinking

This is an historical document. For the most current statistics, see A Snapshot of Annual High-Risk College Drinking Consequences.

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This brochure for college peer educators and resident advisors contains highlights from the report, A Call to Action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at U.S. Colleges. The report was developed by the National Institutes of Health National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Task Force on College Drinking.

The Task Force was composed of college presidents, alcohol researchers, and students. It conducted an extensive analysis of the research literature in order to provide the most up-to-date and credible science-based information on college drinking, including:

  • The scope of the college drinking problem
  • The effectiveness of intervention programs currently used by schools and communities
  • Recommendations for college presidents and researchers on how to improve these interventions and prevention efforts

The Task Force hopes that you will use this brochure (and our other materials) to help you understand the extent of this problem, speak knowledgeably about it, and be proactive in taking steps to address it at your school. The full report of the Task Force and additional supporting documents are available.

A Snapshot of Annual High-Risk College Drinking Consequences

The consequences of excessive and underage drinking affect virtually all college campuses, college communities, and college students, whether they choose to drink or not.

    • Death:  1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes (Hingson et al., 2009).

    • Injury:  599,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are unintentionally injured under the influence of alcohol (Hingson et al., 2009).

    • Assault:  696,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking (Hingson et al., 2009).

    • Sexual Abuse:  97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape (Hingson et al., 2009).

    • Unsafe Sex: 400,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 had unprotected sex and more than 100,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 report having been too intoxicated to know if they consented to having sex (Hingson et al., 2002).

    • High-risk college student drinking includes the following:

      • Underage drinking
      • Drinking and driving or other activities where the use of alcohol is dangerous
      • Drinking when health conditions or medications make use dangerous
      • Binge drinking; that is, 5 drinks in a row per occasion for males and 4 for females*

      *Moderate drinking by persons of legal age is defined as no more than 2 standard drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women.

      Academic Problems: About 25 percent of college students report academic consequences of their drinking including missing class, falling behind, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall (Engs et al., 1996; Presley et al., 1996a, 1996b; Wechsler et al., 2002).

    • Health Problems/Suicide Attempts: More than 150,000 students develop an alcohol-related health problem (Hingson et al., 2002), and between 1.2 and 1.5 percent of students indicate that they tried to commit suicide within the past year due to drinking or drug use (Presley et al., 1998).

    • Drunk Driving: 3,360,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 drive under the influence of alcohol (Hingson et al., 2009).

    • Vandalism: About 11 percent of college student drinkers report that they have damaged property while under the influence of alcohol (Wechsler et al., 2002).

    • Property Damage: More than 25 percent of administrators from schools with relatively low drinking levels and over 50 percent from schools with high drinking levels say their campuses have a "moderate" or "major" problem with alcohol-related property damage (Wechsler et al., 1995).

    • Police Involvement: About 5 percent of 4-year college students are involved with the police or campus security as a result of their drinking (Wechsler et al., 2002), and  110,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are arrested for an alcohol-related violation such as public drunkenness or driving under the influence (Hingson et al., 2002).

    • Alcohol Abuse and Dependence: 31 percent of college students met criteria for a diagnosis of alcohol abuse and 6 percent for a diagnosis of alcohol dependence in the past 12 months, according to questionnaire-based self-reports about their drinking (Knight et al., 2002).

    What are potential signs of a problem?

    • Failure to fulfill major work, school, or home responsibilities
    • Specific school problems such as poor attendance, low grades, and/or recent disciplinary action
    • Drinking in situations that are physically dangerous, such as driving a car
    • Having recurring alcohol-related legal problems, such as being arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or for physically hurting someone while drunk
    • Continued drinking despite having ongoing relationship problems that are caused or worsened by drinking
    • Mood changes such as temper flare-ups, irritability, and defensiveness

      Peer educators
      should know:

      • How can you identify problem, at-risk, or dependent drinkers?
      • How is the body affected by alcohol consumption?
      • What are the drinking laws in your State and community?
      • What are your school's alcohol policies and procedures?
      • What are the possible consequences if a student breaks the law or policy?
    • Physical or mental problems such as memory lapses, poor concentration, bloodshot eyes, lack of coordination, or slurred speech

    Why is the Task Force reaching out to peer educators?

    • You are trusted by classmates to provide reliable answers and accurate information, regardless of the health topic.
    • You have hands-on knowledge that enables you to interpret the report from a different perspective.
    • You are a very important link between the administration and student body.
    • You can assist college presidents in reducing underage/excessive drinking.
    • Your input can make college alcohol prevention programs more successful.

    A Call to Action for Peer Educators/Resident Advisors

    You can help reduce underage and excessive drinking in a variety of ways. The following commonsense suggestions, along with your creativity and rapport with peers, can be strong tools for you to make a difference on your campus.

    • Become involved in the review and assessment of current alcohol programs on campus.
    • Understand and become active in implementing strategies that target the entire study body, the campus and surrounding community environment, and the individual at-risk, problem, or alcohol-dependent student drinker.
    • Work with the administration (through your health center) to help plan and implement interventions. For example, Alcohol Screening Day occurs every April—does it happen on your campus? An online screening tool always available to you is
    • students in libraryOpenly support policy changes aimed at altering the culture of drinking on campus. Many university alcohol policies are listed on this Web site.
    • Understand and advocate for the implementation of the research-based strategies identified in the Task Force's report, as well as programs that include an evaluation component.
    • Work to improve joint campus-community efforts to limit student high-risk drinking.
    • Read the Task Force's report. You will learn the scientific reasoning behind its recommendations, and consequently be able to discuss those recommendations with others.

    The Task Force recommends a comprehensive 3-in-1 Framework that addresses multiple audiences simultaneously. This is explained in more detail in the full Task Force report, which is available free of charge from NIAAA or online.

    Additional Information

    The Task Force report, A Call to Action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at U.S. Colleges, contains information that can help you better respond to high-risk drinking at your school. Highlights include:

    Living Arrangements

    The proportion of college students who drink varies depending on where they live. Drinking rates are highest in fraternities and sororities, followed by on-campus housing (e.g., dormitories, residence halls). Students who live independently off-site (e.g., in apartments) drink less, while commuting students who live with their families drink the least.

    College Characteristics

    A number of environmental influences working in concert with other factors may affect students' alcohol consumption. Schools where excessive alcohol use is more likely to occur include:

    • Schools where Greek systems dominate (i.e., fraternities, sororities)
    • Schools where athletic teams are prominent
    • Schools located in the Northeast

    First-Year Students

    The first 6 weeks of enrollment are critical to first-year student success. Because many students initiate heavy drinking during these early days of college, the potential exists for excessive alcohol consumption to interfere with successful adaptation to campus life. The transition to college is often so difficult to negotiate that about one-third of first-year students fail to enroll for their second year.

    Established Drinking Patterns

    Although some drinking problems begin during the college years, many students entering college bring established drinking practices with them. Twenty-five percent of 12th-graders, for example, report binge drinking in high school, 55 percent report having "been drunk," and almost three-quarters report drinking in the past year. Colleges and universities "inherit" a substantial number of drinking problems that developed earlier in adolescence.

    Secondhand Consequences of Drinking

    Students who do not drink or do not abuse alcohol experience secondhand consequences from others' excessive use. In addition to physical and sexual assault and damaged property, these consequences include unwanted sexual advances and disrupted sleep and study. The problems produced by high-risk drinking are neither victimless nor cost-free. All students—whether they misuse alcohol or not—and their parents, faculty, and members of the surrounding community experience the negative consequences of the drinking culture on U.S. campuses.

    Other Factors Affecting Drinking

    • Biological and genetic predisposition to use
    • Belief system and personality
    • Expectations about the effects of alcohol
    • Availability of alcohol in the area surrounding a campus

    Online Resources


    male student painting

    Engs RC, Hansen DJ. Boozing and brawling on campus: A national study of violent problems associated with drinking over the past decade. Journal of Criminal Justice 22:171-189, 1994.

    Engs RC, Diebold BA, Hansen DJ. The drinking patterns and problems of a national sample of college students, 1994. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education 41:13-33, 1996.

    Hingson RW, Heeren T, Zakocs RC, Kopstein A, Wechsler H. Magnitude of alcohol-related mortality and morbidity among U.S. college students ages 18-24. Journal of Studies on Alcohol 63(2):136-144, 2002.

    Johnston LD, O'Malley PM, Bachman JG, & Schulenberg JE. Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975-2008: Volume I, Secondary school students (NIH Publication No. 09-7402). Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2009.

    Knight JR, Wechsler H, Kuo M, Seibring M, Weitzman ER, Schuckit M. Alcohol abuse and dependence among U.S. college students. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 2002, in press.

    Presley CA, Meilman PW, Cashin JR. Alcohol and Drugs on American College Campuses: Use, Consequences, and Perceptions of the Campus Environment, Vol. 4: 1992-1994. Carbondale, IL: Core Institute, Southern Illinois University, 1996.

    Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Summary Findings from the 1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. DHHS Publication No. (SMA)00-3466. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2000.

    Wechsler H, Dowdall GW, Davenport AE, Castillo S. Correlates of college student binge drinking. American Journal of Public Health 85:982-985, 1995.

    Historical document
    Last reviewed: 7/1/2010

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