Commentary: Drinking and the College Experience

Fri, 08/09/2013 - 12:55pm -- sbyrne

Finally, in just a few short weeks, I’ll be heading off to college. My family and neighbors are eager to give me advice and well wishes. But I’m beginning to notice that those conversations have become pretty biased. “You’re going to what college? I heard the parties are great there!” or “You have Econ 101 on a Friday morning? I guess you’re going to be too hung over for that!”

Huh? Is that all I should be looking forward to at college, drinking and being hung over? What about the other experiences, the exciting professors, the new roommates and friends, the city-life? Adults, including many of my friends’ parents, are all but encouraging me to drink while underage, even though it’s illegal and potentially harmful. Many adults – even those who might prohibit their kid from drinking or using drugs in high school – are, dare I say, supportive of underage alcohol consumption for college students.

“It’s part of the college experience” and “You’ve got to get it out of your system,” they say. I’ve heard, “Well, everybody drinks at college.”

As a student who is transitioning from high school to college, I have to admit, the messages are confusing. For four years of high school, most adults were against teen drinking. They would ground us, punish us, deactivate our cell phones and take away our car keys if they suspected kids were drinking. But after graduation, many adults did a complete 180. The adults I know now tell me that drinking is important for the “college experience.”

But wait. What happened in the past two months that changed drinking from the eighth deadly sin to a societal norm or rite of passage?

Telling recent high school graduates that all college kids drink is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kids like me, who are transitioning from high school to college, know virtually nothing about the college experience. Living in a dorm, sharing a room, having a meal plan – all of this is very new to us. We don’t know what to expect. But because the idea that college kids binge drink is so well ingrained in our culture, kids my age expect that alcohol will be unavoidable on campus.

Why don’t we encourage something else instead? College today costs tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the experience is supposed to be both academically enlightening and personally fulfilling. Why are we preparing kids to drink instead of preparing them to study? Why don’t parents tell us about classes instead of parties?

If you were to ask a parent why they talk so positively about drinking to college kids, I bet most sensible adults would say they were just making small talk. They weren’t trying to encourage kids to hurt themselves or commit a crime. But from the perspective of a teenager, that doesn’t matter. Whether adults understand the impact of their words or not, conversations about the “normalness” of drinking in college are propagating an illegal and harmful social norm among young people.

Teenagers, whether they’re 13, 15 or 19, are trying to define who they are and who they should be. You wouldn’t tell a 13-year-old that drinking is “normal” – the same should be true for an 18- or 19-year-old.

Why is this such an important problem to consider? Because we’re dealing with a vulnerable population. We know that kids in any transition period are more likely to experiment, and that’s part of the reason why drinking in college is so abundant. It’s only natural – if you’re headed off to somewhere new, you have the opportunity to redefine yourself. But a college freshman shouldn’t walk into his/her first class thinking he/she has to drink – or worse, be drunk – just to “fit in” in this new college environment.

Drinking in college isn’t just a problem because it’s illegal. Drinking in college causes real and sometimes long-lasting effects for some kids. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking in college causes nearly 2,000 deaths, 700,000 cases of assault and 25 percent of poor academic performance each year. The most startling statistic is that more than 150,000 kids each year develop an alcohol-related health problem. And those problems don’t wear off when the party is over or even at graduation.

I’m heading off for college in just a few days. I’m excited to meet new people, live in a dorm room and start classes. And in the back of my mind I know, of course, that there will be alcohol on campus and there will be alcohol in many situations I encounter. But I’m content knowing that I have choice. I can choose not to make alcohol a part of my college experience. I hope parents and adults everywhere will give new college freshman the freedom to make that same choice.

Theodore Caputi

Theodore Caputi is a student at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. While in high school, he founded and directed a non-profit organization called the Student Leader Union, which fosters student leadership and community engagement. He is currently a policy intern at the Treatment Research Institute, where he also serves as a member of the Institutional Review Board.