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Inside The Current State Of College Drinking Culture

Liquor bottles are seen on display at a grocery store in River RIdge, La., Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Liquor bottles are seen on display at a grocery store in River RIdge, La., Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

College drinking culture today. Students talk about their habits and attitudes around alcohol.


Madeleine D’Angelo, 21-year-old senior at Boston College. Intern at On Point. From Chevy Chase, Maryland. (@mads_805)

Brianna Pickhardt, 22 years old, graduated from Florida State University in May. Currently a first-year law student at the George Washington University Law School. From West Palm Beach, Florida.

Jack McCarthy, senior at Arizona State University. ASU Barstool Sports website director. From Madison, Wisconsin. (@jmccarthy55)

Wesley Perkins, professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (@HWSColleges), who has been conducting research on high-risk alcohol consumption in college students for three decades. Director of the Alcohol Education Project, which provides research, education and strategies to reduce alcohol abuse in colleges nationally and internationally. Author of “The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Age Substance Abuse.”

Interview Highlights

Defining the current culture

Meghna Chakrabarti: “Let me just get a quick sort of picture here. If I were to ask you describe what the drinking scene is like on campus where you are, how do you answer that?”

Madeleine D’Angelo: “So BC is a school without a greek life, so that does end up shaping a lot of what our drinking scene looks like, but people will mostly gravitate toward hard alcohol, especially — I’ve found — during our freshman and sophomore years when alcohol might be a little bit harder to get a hold of because you’re not legally able to buy it. And there is a very strong blackout culture where people are generally drinking to blackout or ‘brownout.’ ”

MC: “That’s the whole point?”

MD: “Well, it’s not entirely the whole point.”

MC: “Or the goal?”

MD: “I wouldn’t say the goal or the point, but it is not stigmatized, it’s a part of our language. It’s very common to have someone say, ‘Oh, I can’t even remember what happened last night, I blacked out.’ And at some point, it is almost a goal depending on who your friends are or the kind of social scene you’re running in within the school. Maybe because of the stresses of the week, but it is a release, you’re trying to reach that point of inhibition where you can’t even really remember what happens the next day.”

MD: “And as you said it’s not stigmatized?”

MD: “No, it’s not stigmatized.”

MC: “Jack McCarthy, what’s the scene like at ASU?”

Jack McCarthy: “So at ASU, we actually have a dry campus technically. That doesn’t exactly mean everybody follows those rules, but I would say the blackout culture is definitely more common than you would think. But I think it’s more people just trying to relieve stress, but it definitely — people are blacking out more than you would see back when people would drink in high school.”

MC: “Does that worry you?”

JM: “Um, not so much. I think it’s more of an issue when people are doing it every single night. Obviously, it kind of, as Madeleine said, it kind of depends on who your friends are. Some people do it more often than not, but more people do it, I wouldn’t say for attention, but they like to do crazy things at parties, and obviously, you’re not going to do that unless you’re very intoxicated. So I definitely think it stems from either stress or trying to gain attention at social scenes.”

MC: “OK, Brianna let me turn to you here, because we’re just getting a survey of the drinking scenes at various places. So you graduated from Florida State, and now you’re at George Washington. Let’s just start with your four years at FSU. It seems to me that a common thread already with Madeleine and Jack is that drinking to blackout is not uncommon. Did you see that at FSU?”

Brianna Pickhardt: “Absolutely, and I would say that even going one step further, that was definitely the goal. You wanted to drink to blackout, you wanted to make sure that you were reaching that level where blacking out meant that you had enough fun for the night. Which, I think is a very scary and frightening goal to have when you’re trying to relieve stress.”

On social media posting of drunken behavior

MC: “We’re having this conversation because all of a sudden people are thinking about what the drinking culture was like 30 years ago. One thing that didn’t exist 30 years ago was social media, right? One of the big questions around the Kavanaugh controversy is that there is very little or no corroborating evidence from the time — that issue does not exist now in 2018, right, because of social media. I think you can imagine any number of situations where contemporaneous documentation of bad behavior or mistakes — whatever you want to call them — exists. So do people worry about that at all when they’re in these social situations and they’re drinking, and maybe even want to get to the point where they can’t remember what happened?”

BP: “Personally, it’s definitely a concern of mine. I know that there are a number of things that I probably put on Snapchat that should not have been on Snapchat or on any social media when I was in undergrad. But, being a first-year law student, we have events where alcohol is served, and I don’t see the kind of hesitation that you expect to see from first-year law students who are very cognizant of the repercussions from excessive social media posting. I wish we did, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. So when we go out in small or large groups, definitely on social media it’s recorded. There will be a record of it in some way, shape, or form. And I don’t think that’s a very positive thing.”

JM: “I definitely don’t think people are as worried about it as they should be, because nowadays you see it and you go out one night and you do one stupid thing and the next day you wake up and you could be going viral all across the internet, all across the country. So I definitely don’t think that people are as worried about it as they definitely should be.”

MD: “There is a way to remove yourself from being tagged on the post, or to ask a friend to take it down once they’ve posted it, but once that post is up, there’s nothing you can really do — if you didn’t post it yourself — do to remove the post. And, kind of as to what Jack was saying, there really is a kind of this culture of posting stuff online during the week so that, especially with specialized school — I know that BC has a Barstool account on Instagram, where it’s kind of a cache to be seen doing something crazy on it, drinking or whatever it is. So some people want to be seen drinking like that on social media, and they’re not thinking forward to the consequences.”

On whether we’re at a different place from 30 years ago

Wesley Perkins: “I think what I was hearing from them is not something uncommon that you will hear students, or even graduates as they reflect back, I have to say. We’re, in many ways though, not at a very different place than we were even going back 30 years ago. If I might say quickly with a couple points what the reality is on campus based on scores and scores of studies, the overarching and irrefutable findings of a massive amount of research now is that high-risk or heavy drinking sometimes called ‘binge drinking’ is significant and its quite tragic consequences are prevalent and they’re at their highest levels in college students of age 18-24 years old, compared to any other age population, and compared to non-college young adults of the same age. This is the heart of the problem when we talk about alcohol abuse and high risk. Those levels have declined slightly in the last decade with more innovative interventions, but the big picture of high risk in college still remains. Having said that, even given the relatively high rates of problem drinking in college, it is not now — nor has it ever been in previous decades — the norm amongst college students. The best measures of high-risk drinking are about 25 to 30 percent engaging occasionally in high-risk drinking with some frequency. About 20 percent might be described as frequent heavy binge drinkers. And it’s important to know that, to put it in perspective, one-quarter of students consume two-thirds to three-quarters of all the alcohol that’s consumed on a campus  — and this is true across all different kinds of campuses that we’ve researched. One-quarter of students are consuming two-thirds to three-quarters of the alcohol that’s consumed. So the high-risk drinking is relatively concentrated. It’s not the norm, but a serious problem among a significant group.”

On the kinds of alcohol consumed

BP: “I think there’s probably a 50-50 shot at whether you’re going to be drinking hard alcohol or beer depending on the situation and what you’re drinking for. Tailgates before football games tend to be more beer-heavy, whereas parties at fraternities for whatever event tended to be more hard liquor-centric. So I think that is definitely a notable point.”

JM: “I would definitely agree with Brianna. If you’re going to a tailgate or something, it’s definitely going to be beer heavy, but I think definitely for house parties and things like that, hard liquor is kind of where people are heading because they don’t want to carry around — carrying around a 30-case of beer while you’re at a house party is a lot more inconvenient than just carrying around a bottle and sharing it with your friends.

WP: I think it is true that depending on the particular context you might see more beer being consumed or more hard liquor, but the fact of the matter is that we could go back decades and find punch and grain alcohol bring poured for big parties that were quite common in certain circumstances back in the 1970s, the ’80s and so forth. And still, nationwide, beer is the drink of choice, although, in some sectors, in some schools, some hard liquor might have increased popularity. But when we use the word ‘trends,’ we’re just not seeing major trends with that regard. And the bottom line still is how many drinks, how quickly, and if you haven’t been eating at all it can enter your bloodstream pretty quickly no matter what type of alcohol you’re consuming. Certainly, hard alcohol can enter your bloodstream pretty quickly if you’re doing 10 shots in a row and that sort of thing, but if you’re trying to drink as many beers as you can in a row that can be equally devastating, too. I think we have to temper the notion that hard liquor is a new phenomenon and it explains all the problems. It’s a mixed picture.”

From The Reading List

Psychology Today: “Kavanaugh Hearings Shine a Light on College Alcohol Abuse” — “The recent hearings on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court are notable for many reasons. But, as a psychology and health writer, it was Kavanaugh’s attempt to normalize his drinking and that of his friends in high school and college that caught my attention. ‘Everyone did it. Didn’t you?’ seemed to be his message. For example, at various times Kavanaugh said:

“‘I drank beer with my friends. Almost everyone did. Sometimes I had too many beers. Sometimes others did. I liked beer. I still like beer.’

“‘We drank beer and, you know, so did, I think, the vast majority of people our age at the time. But in any event, we drank beer—and still do. So whatever, you know.’

“‘Sometimes I had too many beers. I liked beer. I still like beer. But I never drank beer to the point of blacking out, and I never sexually assaulted anyone.’

“‘There is a bright line between drinking beer, which I gladly do, and which I fully embrace, and sexually assaulting someone, which is a violent crime.’

“Unfortunately, Kavanaugh is right that excessive drinking is common among some groups and in certain places, such as college fraternities. But common as it is, excessive drinking is certainly not harmless or normal. With college drinking in the news, now would be a good time to review the statistics about the harms of college and underage drinking.”

New York Times: “At the Center of the Kavanaugh Accusations: Heavy Drinking” — “As accusations of sexual impropriety have threatened to upend the confirmation of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, a common theme has emerged connecting the decades-old alleged incidents: heavy drinking.

“Christine Blasey Ford described Judge Kavanaugh as ‘stumbling drunk’ when, as a 17-year-old prep school student in suburban Washington, he allegedly tried to force himself on her during a party in 1982. Then, at an alcohol-fueled gathering during his freshman year at Yale, his former classmate Deborah Ramirez says, Judge Kavanaugh exposed himself to her. He has denied both allegations.

“The backdrop to these complaints was a culture of hard partying that permeated certain quarters of high school and college life in the 1980s, when binge drinking among teenagers had reached record levels. No evidence has emerged to indicate that the episodes of drinking ascribed to Judge Kavanaugh back then carried forward into his professional or family life, or that the handful of F.B.I. background checks he has faced in his official Washington career unearthed any red flags about his drinking as an adult.”

CNN: “Brett Kavanaugh’s drinking at Yale comes into renewed focus” — “During his time at one of the nation’s most elite universities, there’s no question that Judge Brett Kavanaugh achieved academic success. But when it comes to the frequency and severity of his drinking there, some former classmates are raising questions about how truthful Kavanaugh was in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and offering to tell FBI investigators what they know.

“Former Yale classmate Chad Ludington became the latest to accuse Kavanaugh of being dishonest, saying that when he watched Kavanaugh deliver his testimony under oath to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, he ‘cringed’ and added that he was willing to talk to the FBI.

“‘Brett was a frequent drinker, and a heavy drinker,’ Ludington said in a statement Sunday. ‘When Brett got drunk, he was often belligerent and aggressive. On one of the last occasions I purposely socialized with Brett, I witnessed him respond to a semi-hostile remark, not by defusing the situation, but by throwing his beer in a man’s face and starting a fight that ended with one of our mutual friends in jail.’ “

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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