Movies like “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and “Old School” portray college life as being more about drinking with friends than actual schoolwork. According to recent studies, that depiction may not be far off, especially for some Cal Poly students.
According to random surveys of approximately 1,600 new Cal Poly students taken in 2002 and 2005, a combined 46.5 percent of students reported drinking alcohol multiple times per week, with 8.7 percent drinking almost daily.
Compared to the rest of the country, Cal Poly’s alcohol statistics are about average. National surveys show about four in five college students drink, and about half of college drinkers engage in “binge” drinking (five or more drinks per sitting for males; four or more drinks per sitting for females).
But when compared to other California colleges, Cal Poly stands out as above average.
“When we look at alcohol consumption by students, Cal Poly is among the highest in the CSU system,” said Martin Bragg, psychologist and director of Cal Poly Health and Counseling Services.
Bragg and his colleagues are trying to combat this problem by combining efforts with other CSU and University of California schools and working with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), an organization dedicated to researching and reducing alcohol-related problems.
Their goal is to develop programs for education and intervention, particularly among younger students who are just experiencing life away from home. One way they do this is by surveying incoming students to identify dangerous trends before they manifest into bigger problems.
These surveys have revealed startling facts about Cal Poly students’ drinking behavior. According to the organization’s findings, published in a 2007 Alcohol and Other Drugs Resource Handbook, in their first six weeks of classes, more than 20 percent of students reported falling behind at least once in their schoolwork because of drinking, with 10 percent of students saying alcohol caused them to do poorly on a test or important school project.
Almost 20 percent of students reported missing a class due to alcohol, with half as many missing more than one class.
Surveys also found that in their first six weeks on campus, more than 10 percent of new students reported going to work or school drunk or high on drugs.
Furthermore, since arriving on campus, more than 14 percent of students reported driving under the influence at least once.
Other results show more than 64 percent of students experienced at least one hangover since they arrived on campus.
And with regard to grades, self-described “C” students reported drinking 55 percent more than “A” students.
These unusually high statistics are due in part to Cal Poly being one of the few colleges in the country with more male than female students, Bragg said. As of fall 2006, 56 percent of Cal Poly students were male.
Unfortunately, these statistics are just part of a bigger epidemic of college students and alcohol abuse, which are often perceived to go hand in hand.
In 2005, the NIAAA reported about 1,700 college students between ages 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related injuries, including car accidents. Reports also found that more than 97,000 students in the same age bracket are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or rape.
Perhaps more alarming is the rate of increase in both student drinkers and their consumption habits.
In 1993, the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study found that 44.1 percent, or nearly half of all students in 116 surveyed colleges, were binge drinkers, and 19.5 percent were frequent binge drinkers.
Subsequent studies found the percentage of binge drinkers remaining about the same, but the number of frequent binge drinkers increased to 23 percent in 1999.
In 2006, researchers at Duke University coined a new term for excessive drinking habits they saw practiced more and more by students. The new term “extreme drinking” is given to a person who downs two to three times the alcohol of a typical “binge” drinker (i.e. 10 or more drinks per sitting for males; eight for females). Their study revealed about 20 percent of freshmen males report practicing “extreme drinking.” The new term is far less applicable to females, according to their report.
A forecast generated by Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Core Institute, an organization that surveys college drinking practices, predicts 300,000 of today’s college students will eventually die of alcohol-related causes.
What’s more, 159,000 of today’s freshmen will drop out of school next year for alcohol or other drug-related reasons, according to their study.
These statistics demonstrate the need for early intervention programs or, as Bragg puts it, “risk reduction.”
“We’re looking for as many ways as possible to get information to students to help them start college without going crazy drinking,” he said.
Numerous programs are underway, but when education isn’t enough, law enforcement must step in.
“We’re constantly trying to educate students about alcohol-related issues,” said Cal Poly University Police Commander Lori Hashim.
“We’re not out to get anybody, but sometimes enforcement is the best education,” she said.
According to Hashim, most University Police calls, especially on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, are for alcohol-related incidents, be it vandalism, assaults or loud parties.
This year on average, University Police made about six to seven DUI arrests per month, with about 10 minor in possession citations per month.
More sporadic are drunk in public violations, in which a person is arrested for being so intoxicated they cannot care for themselves, i.e., they are stumbling down the street or are passed out on a sidewalk. The number of arrests fluctuate anywhere from three to 18 during any given month.
“It’s certainly one of our bigger challenges,” said Hashim, who stressed that most alcohol-related incidents take place in the one-mile radius of neighborhoods surrounding the Cal Poly campus.
University Police say that generally it is new, younger students who are more prone to experimenting dangerously with alcohol. For officers, safety of the students is their highest priority. By intervening a situation, be it a loud party or a person walking home intoxicated, officers feel they are able to prevent a more severe incident from happening later on, such as a DUI or fatality.
“Lots of people don’t realize the danger they’re putting themselves in when they drink too much or too fast,” University Police Sgt. Larry Ponting said. “They think we’re picking on them, but that’s not the case. Our chief concern is students’ safety. We’re just trying to make people aware of their decisions.”
Farther away from campus, San Luis Obispo Police Department officers also feel the effects of college drinking.
“Alcohol abuse is a significant problem for us,” said SLOPD Sgt. Sean Gillham. “We definitely spend the majority of our Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights dealing with alcohol related incidents.”
Gillham, who was raised in the community and has served in local law enforcement for over twenty years, said he has seen the number of alcohol-related incidents involving young people increase dramatically over the years.
“For the most part, the people that aren’t consuming alcohol aren’t causing problems,” he said, echoing the message of University Police that prevention and safety are paramount.
“It’s disturbing for us to see so many young people making decisions under the influence of alcohol that may affect them the rest of their lives.”