College Drinking Spikes for Freshmen

As college gets underway, incoming students across the state are entering a world of long lectures, daunting professors, crushing course loads, new friendships and, often, lots and lots of drinking.

Though most older adults know that excessive drinking can lead to death from alcohol poisoning as well as accidents, date rape, assault, violence, vandalism and academic failure, try telling a newly emancipated freshman that.

During the first few weeks of college, students, especially freshmen, are at the highest risk of alcohol-related harm, said Michael Cleveland, researcher at Penn State’s Prevention Research Center. “We see a spike then because anxiety is high, and the rigors of course work haven’t yet taken hold.”

Michael Davis, a senior at University of Central Florida, says the drinking problem often starts with the way the college is portrayed — as a life that revolves around alcohol. “Freshmen come in expecting it to be that way, so behave that way,” said the 22-year-old communication major.

Parents have reason to worry. According to national surveys conducted by Harvard School of Public Health, 44 percent of all college students binge drink and many suffer alcohol-induced blackouts.

Every year, college drinking leads to 1,825 deaths among students age 18 to 25, according to the College Task Force report to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Drinking also contributes to 599,000 injuries, 696,000 assaults and 97,000 cases of date rape on college campuses each year.

The problem not only costs lives, but money. For each college with 40,000 or more students, emergency-room visits for alcohol-related blackouts cost about $500,000 a year, according to an April report in Health Affairs, an international health-policy journal.

At Central Florida last year, 679 students were cited for alcohol violations, 49 were taken to the hospital for excessive drinking and 29 were arrested for drinking and driving, according to university records. UCF has an enrollment of 59,000 students.

“At the beginning of each semester, I see a jump in the number of students transported to the hospital for alcohol or drug intoxication,” said Tom Hall, UCF Director of Wellness and Health promotion.
The infrastructure around the campus doesn’t help, said Hall. Many off-campus bars, he said, have irresponsible drink promotions.

Though the university hasn’t had an alcohol-poisoning death, it has had students die in alcohol-related auto accidents, he said. “Until Halloween, it’s a pretty dicey time,” Hall said.

“When they see that (the drinking) really isn’t working out, the behavior definitely tapers off,” said Davis.

Scott Walters, professor of Behavioral Health at University of North Texas Health Science Center, looked at data gathered from surveys of 77,000 incoming freshman. The students were asked questions about their drinking behavior during the two months before college started and during their first month of freshman year.

Not only were freshman drinking more in fall than in summer, but they were also drinking more alcohol in a shorter period of time, said Walters, who published the study last year in Addictive Behaviors. “Once college starts, students who do drink get less careful about pacing themselves.”

Cleveland and his colleagues also studied incoming freshmen and found most students shift up one category. Non-drinkers become light drinkers, and light drinkers start bingeing. Most worrisome was the finding that the heavy-drinking group increased from 8 percent of the sample in the summer to 28 percent by fall of freshman year.

However, the research also shows that parents and peers can bring those numbers down, said Cleveland.
In his study, Cleveland found that when parents talked to their kids about drinking and drug use, it had a positive effect.

The parental intervention involved parents reading a 35-page handbook and discussing it with their kids. If students were non-drinkers going into college, the intervention helped keep them non-drinkers. Students who already were heavy drinkers but received parent intervention were less likely to remain in that group. (Parents can find useful talking points at

“Parents need to talk to their children ahead of time and not stop talking to them,” said Walters. “Parents can’t count on the college to orient student to the perils of campus life. It’s the parent’s job. Stay on them.”
Although parents had the greatest impact, Cleveland’s studies also found that peers could play a positive role. When older students talked to incoming students about their academic goals and drinking behaviors and got them to see when the two did not align, the younger students drank less.

Schools can reduce student drinking by reporting its prevalence. At most schools, 60 percent of students are either non-drinkers or drink very lightly, said experts. Yet students typically overestimate how many are drinking and how much.

For those kids who come into college and want to experiment, “all I can say is do it in a safe environment and do it responsibly,” said Davis.