College Student Drinking

Simply by providing accurate information about the actual amount of drinking done by college students, excessive alcohol use can be reduced without dire warnings or threats of punishment.

Researchers at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center conducted a 5-year study of student drinking, concluding that correcting students' widespread misperceptions about how much other students drink helps to reduce drinking, especially heavy drinking. In 1997, with strong support from administrators at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill , the Center began a first-of-a-kind study of drinking among UNC students by obtaining breath-alcohol measurements from a large, representative sample of students as they returned to their residences on all nights of the week.

Results indicated that two out of three students had nothing to drink on weekend nights (Thursday – Saturday), and many of the rest had only a few drinks. On Mondays through Wednesdays, 85 percent did not drink. This information was featured in a “Social Norms” program, whose goal was simply to acquaint students with the truth about student drinking.

The "2 out of 3," program included talks at first-year student orientation sessions, printed materials and posters distributed to every residence hall room and a financial incentive for students to display the posters, a Web site and several other elements designed to help spread the factual information about alcohol use on campus.

In 1999 and again in 2002, after every UNC undergraduate was potentially exposed to the normative information, the team repeated the BAC surveys to learn whether changes in drinking had occurred. In all, they interviewed 6,352 undergraduates and measured the blood alcohol content of 6,108. The following is a summary of the research results.

  • By 2002, the proportion of students with any alcohol had declined by 15%, and the proportion with a breath-alcohol concentration greater than 0.05 was down 23%
  • By 2002, 91% of all respondents were aware of the "2 out of 3 fact,” and 82% understood it. Also, 51% of first-year students and 45% of all respondents who understood it believed it accurately represented drinking at UNC  
  • Between 1997 and 2002, the average number of drinks consumed by UNC students who had been drinking on the night of the interview decreased from 5.1 to 4.3
  • The percentage of respondents who could be classified as heavy drinkers the night they were interviewed dropped from 14% to 10%. (Having five or more drinks for males and four or more for females is typically considered heavy drinking.)
  • Among students who had been drinking the night they were interviewed, the proportion with an alcohol content of above .05 declined from 60% to 52%
  • Self-reported frequent heavy drinking, defined as five or more drinks on three or more occasions in the past two weeks, fell from 24% to 20%

Funding for the study was provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the U.S. Department of Education, the UNC Office of Student Affairs and the North Carolina Governor's Highway Safety Program.

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View Article:

Goodwin, A; Foss, R A Social Norms Approach to Reduce Drinking-Driving Among University Students. Proceedings, Seventeenth International Conference on Alcohol, Drugs & Traffic Safety. Glasgow, Scotland, 2004.