The Truth About Alcohol

Feb 09, 2000 |Clem Boyd

Administrators wring their hands over it. Students shrug their shoulders over it. Maybe it's time to look at the deeper consequences.

What's the big deal about alcohol? Sure, the law says you can't drink till you're 21, but you know how to handle it. Plus, you only drink around friends on campus. So what's the problem?

That seems to be the attitude of many students, maybe including you. Alcohol use has always been a concern to most Christian colleges; many require students to sign agreements to stay dry while they're enrolled. But it's gotten so out-of-hand that even secular colleges are worried about alcohol use and abuse.

According to a recent story in U.S. News and World Report, things weren't always this bad. "In 1949, when the first thorough study of college drinking was made, undergraduates drank no more than others their age, and college life did not encourage excessive tippling." But times, they are a changin', "The same can't be said today. College students drink more because college officials are less strict and many young people drink in high school or before. The result is that students now encounter college cultures in which drinking is not only common but is done mainly to get drunk."

State college administrators are waking up to the fact that drinking and getting drunk is not just a harmless rite of passage for the American co-ed. A 1993 study by the Harvard School of Public Health found 44 percent of all undergraduates not only imbibed but drank to intoxication during the two weeks prior to the survey.

This intoxicating atmosphere has some not-so-pleasant side effects. Students who frequently get drunk are much more likely to miss class, fall behind in school work, have sex, get in trouble with campus police, damage property or get hurt or injured. They also are more likely to drive after drinking or to ride with someone who's under the influence. These are no small dangers. "My roommate and I went to a party, and she got drunk," said an unnamed respondent in the Harvard study. "She hooked up with this guy from the fraternity and had sex with him that night. I couldn't have stopped her because she would have gotten mad. The next day we found out that the guy is seeing someone else and is known all around campus for taking advantage of girls when they're drunk."

Among the report's recommendations: get serious about enforcing the minimum drinking age law. "The age 21 law is half-heartedly enforced on many campuses," the report explained. "In fact, many schools do not even confiscate fake IDs students are caught using. Lax enforcement sends a mixed message to students that the law is not taken seriously and can be disregarded with impunity."

Christian Campus Trends

But how does all this translate to your school? If you attend a Christian college or university, you likely signed a form agreeing to abstain while enrolled, or at least to not bring alcohol onto campus. Even if you didn't sign such an agreement, the fact that the federally-prescribed minimum drinking age is 21 should have some impact, right?

The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) surveyed more than 10,000 incoming freshmen at 50 member institutions in 1994, inquiring about a number of social and personal issues, including the use of alcohol. The research found that while the percentages were lower compared to state college undergrads, 18 percent of entering CCCU students drank beer during their last year of high school and 22 percent drank wine or liquor.

Dr. By Bayliss, vice president for academic affairs at Indiana Wesleyan University and study coordinator, was dismayed, but not surprised, by the findings. "I thought that's what we would find," Bayliss said. "But that doesn't make it right." The same students were questioned four years later in 1998. "When they were surveyed as [college] seniors, 40 percent said they consumed alcohol weekly," said Bayliss. "Alcohol use didn't go down any, it went up." Recent graduates were also questioned about regular alcohol use, defined as at least one drink a week. Half of those surveyed said they drank that often.

So what? A few of your classmates down one now and then. But maybe it's more than one, and maybe more often. In 1995, Calvin College found that 50 percent of all its students drink at least occasionally, a figure practically identical to the findings of a 1985 survey. And most of Calvin's students are under the legal drinking age of 21, probably like you and your friends.

Worse yet was the number of students who said they drank to get drunk. Two of every 10 students said they sometimes drank to the point of intoxication, while three out of every 100 said they did so often. "I didn't really run into that mentality in the '80s, that the established purpose was to get smashed" said Dr. Warren Boer, Calvin's counseling center director. "It just seemed to be more social drinking in the '80s. This whole thing in the '90s ... I don't know if they're facing more problems so they're trying to escape and they're using alcohol in that way. They were telling us they were going to abuse it, going to binge, going to get drunk."

Getting Help

Maybe the drinking scene shocked you as a freshman, but the shock wears off. Aaron Akins, a freshman computer science major at Milligan College in northeast Tennessee said initially he was surprised, but no longer. "There are occasional parties on campus; most are off campus," he said. "The on-campus parties are held when the resident assistant is gone, in dorm rooms or in upperclassmen's rooms. The parties are usually small, like maybe five to 10 people." Akins said about 50 percent of students he knows have attended a party, and 15 percent have gotten drunk. "When the administration knows, the people (who party) are dealt with," he said. "But they usually don't know."

The '94 CCCU study challenged a number of administrators to review their alcohol policies and enforcement of the "dry" rule. One of the responses was more education about alcohol and it's dangers. "The students need more help than a rule telling them they can't drink," Bayliss said. "The rule needs to be there but we need to provide them with resources to help them live that way."

That's what moved Jane Hendriksma, dean of residence life at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., to revamp the discipline model connected with the school's no-alcohol policy. She instituted a program of "educational sanctions" to help undergrads make the connection between attitudes about beer and liquor and their behavior. For instance, students who incur minor infractions of the campus' alcohol policy, like having empty beer cans in their dorm rooms, might have to spend some time with a computer CD-ROM game called "Alcohol 101."

Calvin also provides peer mentors ; students with a record of alcohol-policy violations ; who've worked through their troubles. These collegians link up with current policy violators, sharing their stories, brainstorming plans for better handling drinking situations next time and providing accountability.

Students caught drunk on the Calvin campus, or even hospitalized because of a bingeing episode, are enrolled in a six-week mini-course, which includes education and group counseling. "The goal is to get them looking at themselves, how God's gifted them, and to look at their college experience with the past, present and future in view," Hendriksma said. "We want to help them identify the role of alcohol in their lives. Since this is a discipline, they're usually motivated to change, because if they don't, they're going home."

The Bottom Line

For a long time drinking has been the number one way to engage in rebellion and push the envelope, Boer explained. Students may be rebelling against authority, doing something they know will get a reaction from parents and bring a definite consequence if caught. Then there's the whole peer pressure thing, where the desire to belong is greater than the desire to please parents or listen to conscience.

Some administrators seem to take a "kids will be kids" approach to such behavior, presuming that the alcohol issue is just one of those character kinks that university life will help straighten out. But the decision you make about alcohol is more than just "getting one over" on your folks, or establishing who you are.

When Moses killed the Egyptian, it became nearly impossible for him to speak with authority or make a difference in other people's lives. Alcohol can be just as devastating. By drinking to intoxication, Christian students surrender their high calling, like Esau surrendering his birthright for pottage — an indulgence of the moment that has subtle and not-so-subtle consequences on relationships. If you're abusing alcohol, maybe it's because you've given up the idea of making a difference. But why give up just when your life's journey has begun?

Copyright © 2000 Clem Boyd. All rights reserved.

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