Coed Life at Binge University

Coed Life at Binge University

By Susan Cheever 09/25/12

From state schools to the Ivy League, drinking to get bombed has long been the most popular activity on the quad. Is the problem with our kids or our colleges?

John Belushi in Animal House
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This is a glorious season on America’s gorgeous college campuses. Happy parents dropping their children off at college in September and arriving for elaborately orchestrated visits in October can feel that their children are participating in the great American ritual of higher education. In New England’s answer to the golden age of Athens under Pericles, students will scale philosophical heights, sit at the feet of the wise, and immeasurably stretch their intellects. Many will also be involved with a subject never listed in course catalogues or discussed at parents’ weekend—binge drinking.

What campuses call Greek Life is less like Periclean Athens and more like Homer’s Land of the Lotus Eaters—it feels so good while you are doing it, but like Odysseus, you may have a lot of trouble getting home. These wrongs of passage are far from harmless social bonding. Almost 2,000 college students a year die from binge drinking, defined as four to five drinks in a short time. Many more end up in overcrowded local Emergency Rooms as victims of alcohol poisoning, assault, suicide attempts, STDs and automobile accidents. Hangovers are epidemic. The CDC says binge drinking contributes to 800,000 alcohol-related deaths in the United States each year and costs the economy almost $225 billion.

What campuses call Greek Life is less like Periclean Athens and more like Homer’s Land of the Lotus Eaters.

The annual national survey of alcohol and drug use by the federal government’s SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), which was released last week, shows that of full-time college students in 2011, 60.8% self-defined as “current drinkers,” 39.1% as “binge drinkers,” and 13.6% as “heavy drinkers.” Despite its Ivy League and Seven Sisters pedigree, the nation’s Northeast—the home of some of the most desirable college experiences—is also a capital of binge drinking, according to the CDC. Even kids who didn’t drink much at home seem to take to Tequila like ducks to water when they get to campus.

College drinking isn’t news. Harvard used to have its own brewery to provide for incoming students. When I was in college, few people worried about drinking; we were all too busy worrying about sex—and the revelation that you did not have to be married to have it. I don’t remember having alcoholic blackouts during those heady years, but I do remember that I often just could not figure out where I had parked my car.

More recently at Princeton, my daughter—who rarely drinks—became a kind of designated walker among her acquaintances when they get legless during the course of a night. One of my first calls from my son at college—Loyola, New Orleans—came the day after he had blacked out and been unable to get back into his dorm. He thought the college would report it, and he wanted to warn me. (They didn’t. In the end, he was fined $50.) I had been to enough Al-Anon meetings to be very, very calm on the phone: after we hung up, I was somewhat less serene.

A recent study by Colgate College psychologists of 1,600 students at a “selective, residential liberal arts” Northeastern college showed that a great deal of binge drinking is done as a desire to fit in with the cool kids. “Binge drinking is a symbolic proxy for high status in college,” said one of the study authors, Carolyn Hsu. According to the study, “high status” students (wealthy, male, white, heterosexual, frat brothers) were more likely to binge drink than their “low status” (less wealthy, female, non-white, gay and nonfrat) classmates—and, no surprise, they were having a better time in college too. In an effort to fit in, low-status students binge-drink—although some told the researchers that they didn’t enjoy it.

A great deal of binge drinking is done as a desire for status—to fit in with the cool kids.

What’s disturbing to me about the Colgate study, though, isn’t the stats—it’s the secrets. The college where the study was done is not named. Clearly, one of the conditions of the study was that the college would not agree to be identified as the place where all this binge drinking was going on. In recovery circles we call this kind of secrecy denial. The first step in solving a problem is acknowledging the problem. It’s hard to see how the problems of college drinking can be addressed by responsible adults who seem to be a little out of it themselves when it comes to dealing with the facts. 

Some colleges do address the problem, and a group of some 135 college presidents proposed an unusual (to say the least) solution in the 2008 Amethyst Initiative: lower the drinking age. The logic? If drinking is no longer illicit, it will be less attractive (and safer). Many colleges, however, just try to avoid it. As long as some college administrators insist on operating in their own personal blackout, there is little that can be done to change things. Binge drinking is a problem; binge drinking covered up by shame and fear is a much, much larger one.

Susan Cheever, a regular columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.