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Published: Monday, 5/10/2010

Perception pushes reality of college binge drinking

COLLEGE kids like to drink. News flash? Hardly.

But the extent to which binge drinking infects our college campuses should terrify you if you're the parent of a student. While it may not be as common as the kids themselves perceive it to be, it is probably far worse than their parents suspect.

Bowling Green State University communications professor Terry Rentner, armed with 17 federal and state grants and a determination to change student behavior toward alcohol, has been crunching the numbers for the past several years, and it's not a pretty sight.

The conventional definition of high-risk binge drinking is straightforward: five or more drinks in two hours for males or four for females, at least once in the previous two weeks. Ms. Rentner's research at BGSU squares with what other studies at other universities have found: Students who are most likely to binge fall into three groups - freshmen, athletes, and members of fraternities and sororities.

Solving the problem has proved much more elusive. Prevention programs, Ms. Rentner says, have generally fallen short across the country. She thinks she knows why: "So often we're just not targeting the most vulnerable."

It's hardly surprising that first-year students are high-risk. Freed from the watchful eyes of Mom and Dad for the first time, many aren't ready for the temptations and responsibilities that come with college life.

For some of them, binge drinking began in high school. Just as worrisome is the number of new arrivals on campus who drank in high school with their parents' awareness and consent, Ms. Rentner says.

She surveyed high school students across Ohio and found that an amazing 98 percent believe college students drink heavily. "So they were actually planning to drink more because they thought that was the norm."

Athletes fall victim to temptation because of their status as celebrities on campus, Ms. Rentner believes. Bartenders and other students often offer to buy them drinks. And raucous drinking parties involving fraternity and sorority members are common on many campuses.

Her research found something truly surprising: There is an enormous gap between college students' own perception of binge drinking and reality. Students tend to exaggerate the negative health behavior of their peers, assume that's normal behavior, and emulate it themselves.

Using scientific sampling methods to survey hundreds of BGSU students, she found that more than half believe their peers have at least one drink every day. The reality, she says, is that barely 1 percent do.

But it's not the casual drinker who's the problem. It's the student who binges, and although BGSU's binge rate has come down in recent years, it is still higher than the national average, which studies say is 44 percent. That's truly a horrifying number.

Ms. Rentner's most significant grant - a two-year, $300,000 award from the U.S. Department of Education - helped BGSU formulate an intervention strategy that sought to educate the entire student body but also focus on those who are most vulnerable.

A program called AlcoholEdu was offered to all freshmen, student athletes, and Greek organizations. Its mission was to help at-risk students understand they are not alone if they choose not to binge drink.

Roughly 3,000 students took the course when it was first offered; about one-third completed it. The course is no longer offered, in part because federal funding ran out and partly because the program can't be truly effective unless it is mandatory, which it was not.

So progress is incremental, not dramatic, but Ms. Rentner sees encouraging change anyway. "What we're doing is not a magic bullet."

Several months ago, I wrote about a program at Stony Brook University in New York called RedWatch Band, which trains college students and faculty to recognize the symptoms of alcohol poisoning and perhaps save a life. Commendable as it is, Stony Brook's program deals with the consequence of the problem, not the problem itself.

At Bowling Green and on other campuses, a proactive approach is attempting to figure out why it happens in the first place.

"Do I actually think we're going to stop students from drinking?" Ms. Rentner asks. "Of course not. But we can help them make healthier choices."

Perceptions can be tough to overcome. Ms. Rentner surveyed one women's residence hall and found that the residents believed 73 percent who lived there engaged in high-risk drinking. The reality was "only" 33 percent, a mixed blessing if ever there was one, and hardly something to feel good about.

Drive along the southern edge of the BGSU campus on East Wooster Street on a warm-weather weekend and you're convinced everybody's doing it.

If there is a silver lining, it is this: The perception is worse than the reality. But the reality is still pretty scary.

Thomas Walton is retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

Contact him at:

twalton@theblade.com



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