A For Effort

Confronting the Campus Drinking Crisis

Photo credit: Rachel Roscoe by Ian Brundige.

By Brooks Hepp, Ian Brundige, Jeremy Konzen, Bobby Connor, Maddy McTigue and Kantaro Komiya

First-year Rachel Roscoe walked into a DePauw fraternity dressed as a green alien for Halloween, in October, for her first college fraternity party. She straightened her hair, put on a glitzy tank top with a skirt and heels. Lip gloss? Check. Straight hair? Check.

In that moment of preparation, she was hyped about DePauw fraternity parties, something she’d heard about for months. That scene was nothing like she had expected. She walked down a narrow staircase, bumping into bodies of people she had never seen before. The basement was packed, every square inch filled with hot, sweaty student bodies. The music was loud enough to drain any kind of real conversation.

“I still have not seen a fraternity as packed as it was that night,” Roscoe says.

Overwhelmed, Roscoe and her friends left within an hour to hang out in the dorms with fellow first-years: “I remember that I wore these heels and I literally left at like … 10:30 because my feet hurt so bad. I was like, ‘I need to go back and I’m changing my shoes.”

Since that brisk October night, Roscoe is way more comfortable with the DePauw social scene. So it came as a surprise, in January, when she was called into the DePauw Office of Public Safety and asked why surveillance tapes showed she was “stumbling” into Hogate Hall one previous Saturday night.

Roscoe is certain she had exactly two beers at the frat she was at that night. She admitted to pregaming — having drinks before going out — in her dorm, but she was not drunk when she walked home with her boyfriend. She is sure of it. As a result of underage drinking, she was assigned to a university Community Standards Process program, which Roscoe says did more harm than good.

Despite its small campus size at about 2,000 students, for years DePauw drew a reputation as a party school, making the Princeton Review’s Top 20 list of party schools many times from 2009 to 2015. This school year, 19 students have been hospitalized for blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels well above the .08 limit considered to be the danger zone.

School officials and students have grappled with the issue, including education and awareness programs, and implementing medical amnesty so students feel free to intervene as a bystander without repercussions later on.

In the 2014-15 school year, student infractions peaked at around 253, according to DePauw’s Annual Fire and Safety Report, federally required by the Clery Act, instituted in 1990. In January 2017, DePauw’s Public Safety Office made the transition from university sanctions on drug and alcohol violations to county prosecution.

“Before that, Public Safety, as law enforcement officers, really weren’t using all the resources available to them,” such as issuing citations and making arrests, says Julia Sutherlin, assistant dean of campus life and alcohol initiatives director.

This change has vastly increased the number of alcohol- and drug-based arrests: A comparison between the 2016 and 2017 Clery reports shows the number of alcohol-related violations on and off campus has fallen from 159 to 92. Yet, the alcohol-related arrests jumped from 36 to 48. Arrests also rose in 2015 and 2016, from 20 to 36. The same correlation can be seen with arrests associated with drug-based violations.

“You will see an uptick in the numbers in those first few years, and that, to me, is natural. When you start to do something new, in that first little bit, you’re going to see an uptick.”

Nationally, 58 percent of college students ages 18-22 drank alcohol, more than similarly aged people (48 percent), the latest-available figures from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. College students (37.9 percent) are more likely to binge drink than young adults of the same age (32 percent). College students are also more likely to engage in heavy drinking, according to the institute’s report on behaviors reported in the past month.

“About one in four college students report academic consequences from drinking, including missing class, falling behind in class, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall,” according the institute.

The situation at DePauw is improving: From 2016 to 2017, the number of alcohol-related violations on and off campus had decreased from 159 to 92, according to an analysis of federally mandated Clery Act reports. Alcohol-related arrests increased from 36 to 48 from ’16 to ’17, and from 20 to 36 in 2015-16, an analysis shows.

Still, both alcohol and drugs incidents are concerning: For example, Kappa Alpha Theta and Alpha Tau Omega were put on interim suspension in January 2019 because of a November 2018 incident leading to a student’s hospitalization linked to alcohol. Sigma Alpha Epsilon is back on DePauw’s campus after being suspended by its national organizing body in 2016 for drug-related activity.

DePauw tries a lot, including punishment

The administration, like colleges and universities nationwide, is trying a variety of strategies to shift the emphasis on drinking, such as comprehensive alcohol education for incoming students, according to Sutherlin. The aim is to reduce medical incidents and promote personal responsibility.

Over the past three years, DePauw’s Office of Alcohol Initiatives has implemented several changes, such as creating the Collaborative to Reduce High Risk Drinking, in addition to more aggressive rule enforcement. This collaborative is comprised of students, faculty, staff, alumni and experts at Hendricks Regional Health.

“With the Collaborative, our motto has somewhat been that we're going to do lots of things,” Sutherland says.

Moreover, an analysis of Clery Act data shows DePauw Public Safety plays a big — and punitive — role in managing excessive drinking.

The question is: Is punishment enough? Is education enough? What would it take to create a vibrant social scene in a small town with few social options? Shifting culture is a tall order, according to students, administrators and thought-leaders interviewed for this solutions-seeking story. Perhaps the answer lies not in broad strategies but shifting the small things, like students being more open to express how vulnerable they feel in new social scenes. Research shows college students tend to overestimate how much people around them are drinking, and that may influence their habits, according to a 2018 Addictive Behaviors report.

To be sure, DePauw may be an outlier in terms of alcohol incidents, but American colleges in general are drenched in a drinking culture that largely revolves around Greek life. In recent years, Greek life has come under criticism for its role in alcohol-related incidents and sexual violence. For example, Timothy Piazza, a first-year student at Penn State University, died on February 2, 2017 at Beta Theta Pi Fraternity after drinking a bottle of vodka, beer and wine.

Colleges and universities are grappling mightily with a social issue that seems impossible to fix.

In a comparison of 11 universities with a similar town size, robust Greek system and student population as DePauw’s, from 2015-2017, we found:

  • DePauw placed fifth from the top in alcohol violations resulting in referrals, almost 350 incidents behind the top school, Bucknell University.
  • On violations resulting in arrests, DePauw is No. 1, with 16 more arrests than the second-place school, Bucknell.
  • On drug-related referrals and arrests, DePauw comes in fourth in referrals (35), behind the leading school, Bucknell.
However, DePauw stands at No. 1 in arrests (19), compared with Bucknell, which had one arrest during this period.

What can curb campus drinking?

Colleges can’t educate themselves out of the campus drinking crisis, no matter how hard they try, says Robert Saltz, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Prevention Research Center in Berkeley, California.

“Institutions of higher education are still really committed to the idea that if we just provide the right information or the right message, that will do the trick, despite 30 or 40 years of research that shows that’s not true,” he wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2014.

He still thinks so.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, about 645 miles west of Greencastle, is using an “environmental management approach,” which Saltz suggested in an April phone interview is the way to go.

Linda Major, assistant vice chancellor at UNL, is the point person on this issue. She said a campuswide alcohol initiative has reduced the student binge-drinking rate from 62.4 percent in 1999 to 35 percent in 2016.

Guided by the Nebraska College Consortium to Reduce High-Risk Drinking with 27 schools, environmental management combats student substance abuse by focusing on alcohol education, enforcement and policy which, according to Major “all influence if someone wants to drink.”

Like DePauw, before starting school students start by participating in web-based education. Enforcement includes holding, both students and landlords of spaces where drinking occurs, accountable. And it’s not just the campus being regulated: Downtown bars and restaurants are taken into consideration when evaluating campus drinking as a whole. As far as policies, the coalition makes sure students know what they are and how to adhere to them.

The coalition has been sure to use strategic communication. One of the most important strategies was to consider distinctive characteristics of the university and its students.

"You can't pick up what works at the University of Colorado and plop it at the University of Nebraska without taking into consideration the cultural context," Major says.

Specifically, she notes how the campus struggles with getting Greek organizations on board with the environmental management approach, as well as keeping track of nearly 130 campus bars that are “high risk.”

Major also emphasized transparency in communication.

“People often think that by ratcheting up the sanctions, we're going to impact the problem,” she says, noting university’s approach is not solely focused on drinking prevention. “It's more important to be clear and to be consistent, rather than to be severe."

Overall, the approach is a shared effort by the entire campus community, and it starts with the students, says Major: "Everyone is part of the solution."

Half empty/half full solutions

Researchers are working to solve the campus drinking problem.

In Australia, the Burnet Institute tested an interactive mobile app using text messages to help students make better decisions while out socializing. For example, the app might ask a user when they plan to go out, and when they planned on leaving and coming home. During the night, a student would get a text asking how many drinks they’ve had and how much money they’ve spent. It might nudge and remind the student about an exam scheduled the next day based on answers provided the app earlier.

Dr. David Rosenbloom convened experts on college-aged drinking experts at Boston University School of Public Health where participants also showed an interest in mobile apps. Apps have the potential to be inexpensive and, besides, alcohol companies use tech to market to young adults anyway. Plenty of options exist but simply aren’t adopted, the group decided.

Among solutions identified were apps that could use geotagging to send messages to student who might in a risky situation. Also discussed was raising the prices on alcohol through taxes and making kegs more difficult to get, something tried on this campus already.

The Boston University experts suggested asking students how to market healthy messages because they would know better than anyone else how to talk to fellow students. Predictive tools and algorithms can also be used to tailor messages to students.

At DePauw, students have discussed gifting students with personal blood alcohol monitors, which cost as little as $17.

Meanwhile, back at DePauw

Rachel Roscoe’s situation describes the tension of being on a small exurban campus. She is like a lot of DePauw students, especially underclassmen, who drink alcohol regularly. She and her friends drink once or twice a week, mainly because there’s a lack of things to do on the weekends in Greencastle, she says. Drinking is also a way to unwind after a tough week of attending classes and studying well into the night.

“I have a lot of stress and anxiety because I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well in school, so I’m constantly running all over the place,” Roscoe says. “So on the weekends, it’s kind of like this is time to relax and let go and not have to worry about what my next paper is going to be.”

Students, in general, are stressed because of tension around DePauw’s amnesty policy on intervening in situations where a student might be dangerously in trouble with drinking. Graham Jaeger, 20, found himself on the wrong end of this policy when he suffered alcohol poisoning with a .471 blood alcohol concentration (BAC). A .08 percent BAC is considered illegal for driver, as a point of comparison.

The administration’s failure to extend amnesty, which the university claims came too late for the policy to be applied, has drawn the ire of the Interfraternity Council, which wrote a letter to The DePauw recently: “...the short-sighted policies of the last two years are too stringent to reasonably expect full compliance. In addition, when punishment is warranted, investigations are conducted with subjectivity, poor timeliness, deception and what can best be described as a “guilty until proven innocent” mentality.”

Parents of several DePauw students met with administrators on May 6 to discuss this issue.

Ultimately, Roscoe says she doesn’t believe DePauw has a drinking problem. The balance between school and the chance to socialize was part of the reason why she chose DePauw. Her older sister, Mahayla Roscoe, is a junior classical studies major who is academically strong and involved on campus despite weekend drinking.

“She’s so focused on school, Roscoe says. “And I was like, ‘OK, she’s still getting good grades. Still getting on the Dean’s List.’ And obviously, this isn’t affecting her work ethic that much. So I didn’t really see it as a problem because grades are really important to me, too.”

In Roscoe’s opinion, there are fewer opportunities to drink on DePauw’s campus than at bigger schools like Indiana University in Bloomington, an hour away south: “There are some nights here where there aren’t any parties. But at other schools, you can find a big party pretty much every night.”

In the end, Roscoe is looking forward to moving past this and orienting to her true north as a student leader who is passionate about school and her friends:

“I was on the receiving end of the punishment,” she says, “but I wasn’t entirely sure what I was being punished for.”