No gin, just juice

Data show drinking rates among freshmen are on the decline.

Bronwyn Miller

 

The University of California-Los Angeles recently released this year’s results of the largest and longest-running survey of American college students — the Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey. Congratulations, class of 2016 — you’re drinking at all-time low levels.

Rates of 2012 freshmen “frequently” or “occasionally” drinking alcohol stood nationally at 33.4 percent for beer, 39.2 percent for wine or liquor. University of Minnesota CIRP data is only slightly higher than the average, but reflects significant drops from previous years. Compared to 2001, the number of freshmen drinking dropped by 16.3 percentage points for all types of alcohol.

Within a media climate saturated with concerns of alcohol overconsumption that are particularly focused on college students, these results are surprising — and induce skepticism. The release of the CIRP results coincides with a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that calls binge drinking among young women a “serious, under-recognized problem,” noting that 24 percent of women ages 18 to 24 now report binge drinking, or the consumption of more than four drinks at a time, three times per month. Though young men are still engaging in binge drinking more often than females, the closing of the gender gap — as well as newfound, unique risks for women — is a primary concern.

The discrepancy between the CIRP and CDC data is curious. Perhaps freshmen are waiting longer to take their first drinks. But to construe the CIRP data as representing a decrease in the partying habits of college students — as several media outlets have — is naive, ignoring other dangerous realities of current drinking trends.

We are a culture that reveres excessiveness, and alcohol use in college reflects this. Getting drunk is the main event. The party is secondary; the details may change, but the goal remains the same. These days, beyond the traditional Hollywood depictions of wild college parties, we have other models: Websites like Texts From Last Night normalize risky behavior in a way that could affect our perceived peer norms. Social norms theory illustrates that much of our behavior is influenced by our perception of how other members of our social group act — and if everyone else seems to “Blame It” on the alcohol, why shouldn’t we?

We embrace a vernacular that normalizes drinking in excess: “browning out” is considered standard practice, “go hard or go home” is our motto and a “walk of shame” is just as easily a “stride of pride.” We wear our blackout stories as a badge of honor, chronicling what we “apparently” did after our friends have filled in the blanks for us. Woven so intrinsically into college culture is a great enthusiasm for the activities that serve to authenticate our status as an undergrad. Keg stands! Shots! Poor decisions!

Statistics show that levels of binge drinking among college students remain relatively constant, about 40 percent. Importantly, the majority of young people who report alcohol use also report binge drinking, the frightening consequences of which are more understood each day. The 2012 CIRP data also shows that young people are as stressed out as ever. Nearly 40 percent of female and 18 percent of male freshmen  reported feeling “frequently overwhelmed” — which other studies have shown is a clear motivation for alcohol use.

Lower rates of freshman alcohol use are certainly praiseworthy, but the critical issue is controlling the drinking that occurs if and when college students start using alcohol. Memories are in fact a lot sweeter when recollections don’t have to end with “and then I threw up into my own hair.”