Effects of Binge Drinking on College Students


By: Veronica Harper

©Veronica Harper, 2005, all rights reserved




Binge Drinking

Freshmen and Drinking

Drinking and GPA/Grades

Prevention Programs





            This paper discusses possible explanations for the high rate of binge drinking on most U.S. college campuses. Binge drinking is defined, and a hypothesis is given that binge drinking is contingent on a student’s living arrangements for their first year of school and with whom they associate at that time. High school performance and family history also play a part in the amount a student drinks. Emphasis is given on how a student’s grades are affected by heavy drinking, as well as possible solutions the administration could instill that would help curb the amount of alcohol that college students feel the need to consume. In this paper the terms heavy drinking and binge drinking are used synonymously. On average the more education a person receives, the more likely he/she is to engage in a healthier lifestyle. College graduates tend to smoke less, wear seatbelts more often, and be less overweight than those who only received high school diplomas (Prendergast 1994). However, college students are more likely to drink and to drink more than people of the same age who are not in college. Almost half of drinking students are considered binge drinkers (five drinks in a row at one sitting for a man and four drinks in a row at one sitting for a woman). Many students believe alcohol use is part of the college experience, and thus it can be concluded that “the college environment may influence or foster binge drinking” (Bergen-Cico 2000). This is especially true of first year college students, more so when those students live in residence halls or become members of the Greek system. The amount students drink is contingent on their age, where they live, and with whom they associate at school. Binge drinking may have roots in high school activities and family history, including gender and race, and also has implications for academic performance. These conditions should all be considered when devising prevention programs.


Binge Drinking

            Students’ definitions of binge drinking are based on how much they themselves drink. Defined by researchers, the standard measure of binge drinking when sex is taken into account is five drinks in a row for a man and four drinks in a row for a woman. A drink is defined in equivalent amounts of alcohol: a 12-oz bottle or can of beer, a 4-oz glass of wine, a 12-oz bottle or can of wine cooler, or one shot (1.25-oz) of liquor, either straight or mixed into a drink. According to Henry Wechsler and Meichun Kuo (2000), students define binge drinking on a gender specific basis, and the more a student tends to drink, the higher the amount of alcohol they believe it takes to be considered a binge drinker. Of the students surveyed, the median definition of binge drinking was six in a row for a man and five for a woman, one drink higher than the standard definition. Furthermore, the definition given by each student of binge drinking positively correlated with the amount the individual consumed on a regular basis.

Students who abstained from drinking defined the amount as five drinks for a man and four for a woman. Frequent binge drinkers believe the amount is eight drinks for a man and six for a woman, and one in three frequent binge drinkers believed that ten or more drinks defined a binge drinker (Wechsler et al. 2000). Students also tend to overestimate the amount of alcohol their friends and peers on campus drink, leading them to believe that the amount of binge drinking on campus is higher than it actually is. At schools where the binge-drinking rate is high, four out of five abstainers believe there is a drinking problem on campus. Similarly, on low-binge drinking campuses one out of four frequent binge drinkers also see a problem with drinking on campus (Wechsler et al. 2000). The majority of students at high-binge schools, including both those who do and do not drink, realize that alcohol is a problem on their campus. In the case of low-binge schools where the binge drinkers are the minority, they too judge accurately the amount of drinking that goes on at their school. Students are perceptive when it comes to addressing the issue of alcohol and binge drinking as a whole, yet when it comes to themselves as individuals the problems are harder to see. On top of social consequences, heavy drinking creates health problems as well.

            Binge drinking directly relates to several harmful activities including unplanned and unsafe sex, physical and sexual assault, other criminal activities, injury, and poor grades (Wechsler et al. 1994). Frequent binge drinkers, both men and women, are seven to ten times more likely to engage in unplanned and unsafe sex, to become injured due to their intoxication, and to drink and drive. Considering only men, damaging property and getting into trouble with the campus police are also added to the list of harmful activities. Even occasional binge drinkers experience alcohol-related issues at a much higher rate than those who drink alcohol but do not binge drink. They are eight times more likely to miss a class, fall behind on their school work, blackout, injure themselves, and damage property (Wechsler et al. 1998). The prevalence of alcohol-related problems appears to be increasing with time.

When alcohol and health related issues were compared over a four-year period, there was a 22 percent increase in the amount of alcohol-related problems between 1993 and 1997, and there was a 13 percent increase in the number of drunk drivers between those same years (Wechsler et al. 1998). This is a concern because alcohol is a major contributor in the leading causes of accidental death in the United States for young adults, especially automobile accidents and personal injury. Consider Eric Wellhausen, the 18-year-old University of Kansas freshmen who fell from the seventh floor of Oliver Residence Hall during the fall semester of 2003 and whose blood-alcohol content was found to be over twice the legal limit. His is just one name on the list of thousands of others whose lives ended or changed dramatically due to alcohol use and abuse. Numerous college presidents define alcohol as the number one problem on college campuses because the effects of heavy drinking are so far-reaching (Wechlser et al. 1994). However, college students tend to experience only acute problems related to alcohol. Because they are young, the issues surrounding alcohol use include accidents, aggressive behavior, and driving while intoxicated, compared to the more chronic problems associated with long term steady drinking such as cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatic cancer, or neurological problems (Prendergast 1994). Students’ age and environment play a part in how much alcohol they tend to drink, and freshmen binge drink at the highest rate.


Freshmen and Drinking

            For many incoming freshmen, college represents a newfound freedom. They no longer have parent-enforced curfews, they are legally considered adults, and they are surrounded by 40 or more students of the same age (if they chose to live in a residence hall or enter the Greek system). These factors all appear to play a part in the amount of alcohol freshmen tend to drink. Part of this may be because of their activities in high school; however, a greater part seems to revolve around the social implications freshmen feel that drinking and college involve. If students begin using alcohol in high school, they are more likely to experience the negative consequences of heavy drinking in college (Haemmerlie et al. 1994). Negative consequences include being hungover, missing class, damaging property, driving under the influence, blacking out, and unplanned sexual activity. Conversely, students who are older before they have their first drink tend to experience better academic adjustment, better personal adjustment, and succeed more with overall adjustment to college. The later the age students first use alcohol, the more likely they are to have a better GPA (grade point average) and the less likely they are to have consumed alcohol within the past two years (Haemmerlie et al. 1994).

            Social factors influence alcohol use among college students, who believe it is a rite of passage into adulthood. As students enter college, they begin to hear tales about the antics of their intoxicated peers or mention of a campus wide party that involved alcohol (Wesley et al. 1999). Because students begin to feel that drinking in college is a necessity, the success of many firstyear students largely depends on whether or not they can set personal boundaries within the context of their peer community. Alcohol use among firstyear students occurs disproportionately when they are compared to the rest of the student body.

Freshmen tend to overestimate the amount of alcohol their fellow students consume, thus leading them to believe they have to drink as much as this imaginary amount to fit in. Students continuously felt pressure from their peers to consume a lot of alcohol; however, it now appears that there is an internal influence as well. Freshmen feel the need to conform to the perceived norm of alcohol consumption, so they put pressure on themselves to drink large quantities. Unfortunately, because of this tendency, the perception that most students are binge drinkers is accurate within the first-year student body. However, as students become sophomores, juniors, and seniors, the amount of alcohol consumption goes down (Bergen-Cico 2000). Because freshmen interact with each other within similar social settings, peers still play a role in a student’s drinking behavior.

            Freshmen who enter college as nondrinkers refrain from drinking through their first two years if two conditions are present. Students with friends who discourage them from drinking are likely to remain abstinent as long as they do not join the Greek system. Nationwide, over 91 percent of high school students have tried alcohol by the time they reach their senior year. 64 percent of these drinkers are considered current drinkers, meaning they have consumed alcohol within the past month (National Institute on Alcohol and Drugs, 1990). Those students who remain non-drinkers in high school and enter college with abstaining friends are three times less likely to begin drinking than are students who make up the 91 percent drinking majority, especially if those students decide to join a fraternity or sorority (Lo et al. 1993).

Students who enroll in a large public university with a strong Greek system are encouraged to both use and misuse alcohol. Two out of three fraternity and sorority members are binge drinkers, and when students live in their Greek houses the number rises to four out of five members (Wechsler et al. 2000). Students report that their friends drink the same amount of alcohol they do, showing that there is a strong connection between a student’s own drinking habits and their perceptions of their friends’ drinking habits. It can be concluded that on top of an internal pressure to conform to drinking “norms” students feel a pressure from peers to both drink and drink heavily, or to abstain altogether. Personal drinking habits mirror the social group a student associates with. Students who chose to abstain generally seek out friends who make the same choices. Likewise a student who wants to drink will find similar friends. It should be kept in mind that abstainers are often considered to be “losers” for not wanting to partake in the drinking culture, and efforts should be made to make clear the fact that drinking behavior does not have to affect peer association. Students who abstain from drinking do not necessarily hold a grudge against students who do drink; however, they are often stigmatized. The point is not to further isolate the abstainers from the drinking population by limiting their friendships to only those who do not drink. While peers and the environment play an influential part in the amount a new student drinks, a student’s personal family history contributes to drinking habits as well.


Drinking and GPA/Grades

Regardless of gender and race, binge drinking may have implications for students’ academic progress. Drinking is assumed to negatively affect GPA both through its effect on a student’s cognitive abilities and also by affecting study habits. However, data are mixed regarding the correlation between poor grades and alcohol consumption. Researchers such as Amy Wolaver (2002) believe that students who occasionally or frequently binge drink miss classes more and end up falling behind on their school work. More than the amount of alcohol consumed, the frequency in which students drink appears to have a greater effect on lowering GPA. If a student is a binge drinker but only does so occasionally, his/her actions will have less of an effect on GPA than will a student who constantly drinks without binging. Frequent drinking affects students academically because they do not go to class as often and end up studying less. Conversely, students who always binge when they drink will do physical harm to themselves, but if this binge drinking does not occur at a frequent rate their grades will not suffer as much. These effects are strongest for people under age 21, because they are the ones who end up drinking the most frequently (Wolaver 2002).

“A” students average 3 drinks per week, “B” students have 5 drinks per week, “C” students consume 6 per week, and “D” students drink 10 or more alcoholic beverages a week (Presley et al. 1996). Nearly one fourth of respondents to the Core Survey indicated that they had done poorly on a test or project as a result of heavy drinking the night before, and nearly one third reported having missed class due to alcohol (Presley et al. 1994). However, there are several other factors that researchers failed to take into account when correlating alcohol consumption and GPA, and when these factors are accounted for the association tends to disappear.

When a student’s high school performance and class rank are considered, the relationship between heavy alcohol use and GPA recedes. Therefore, the connection between binge drinking and poor grades may be because of preexisting factors. Poor academic performance in high school may be an indication of heavy drinking and academic problems in college (Paschall et al. 2003). Because high school accomplishments are not often included on college surveys regarding alcohol use, researchers have assumed that a student’s academic background has no effect on current grades.

For example, a study conducted among 450 freshmen at the University of Missouri found a strong correlation between binge drinking and academic performance. However, when those same freshmen included their high school class rank and academic aptitude information the relationship between drinking and grades was no longer present (Wood et al. 1997). A similar study was conducted at the University of California at Berkley with similar results; however, this study may have generated atypical results due to the student body that was polled (Paschall et al. 2003). Because students at UC-Berkley have higher high school GPAs entering college than do most universities nationwide, the results gathered through the survey may not accurately represent the rest of the country. UC-Berkley has the reputation of putting higher demands on its students academically as well, so students there may be less likely to consume alcohol when it carries the possibility of negatively affecting one’s grade. Missing classes, falling behind on schoolwork, or performing poorly on a test or project are all seen as results of heavy drinking the night before, but in reality there are numerous other reasons why students end up falling behind academically. Personal reasons such as lack of interest in the course subject, higher academic demands in college as compared to high school, or dislike of a professor also affect class performance (Paschall et al. 2003).

The observed connection between consuming alcohol and bad grades almost always fails to consider individual differences as a third variable in the relationship (Wood et al. 2000). Besides academic ability as determined through high school GPA, a student’s personal interests, family history, and background contribute to why a student chooses to attend class or study for a test. It is too easy to blame academic failure on alcohol consumption without thinking about other explanations. Furthermore, if heavy drinking does play a part in academic dysfunction, it is unclear which way the correlation occurs. Academic failure could cause a student to drink. On surveys where no distinction is made it would be possible for the answer to be misconstrued. Researchers often fail to take into account that sometimes students are misclassified as dropping out of college when in fact they transferred to another school. This would make that student’s academic record appear poor, and if students supplied information that they consumed alcohol the information would be misinterpreted. Finally students who misuse alcohol and subsequently drop out of school skew data and make it appear as if alcohol use goes down as students get older, when in fact this may not be the case.


Prevention Programs

When university personnel create alcohol consumption prevention programs for their campuses they have several different options, but the best programs target several different audiences and offer drinking alternatives appropriate for the different attitudes about alcohol present on campus. The public health theory sees the reduction of college drinking as a community issue and takes a more holistic approach to prevention programs (Sullivan et al. 2002). Possible interventions include increased consequences for offenders such as fines or probation, reducing the availability of alcohol within the community (i.e. training restaurant servers and liquor store employees to properly identify minors), or including a curriculum within college classrooms that has students identify the negative effects of binge drinking. The limitation of this model is the fact that it is based on the assumption that once alcohol availability is reduced alcohol-related problems on college campuses will dissipate. Prohibition policies do not always work for binge drinkers because if they feel the need to consume mass quantities of alcohol they will do so regardless of the steps authorities take.

A second option is the sociocultural theory of alcohol consumption. The sociocultural perspective ascertains that it is the misuse of alcohol, not alcohol itself that is the source of drinking problems. This approach tries to normalize drinking as a healthy part of everyday living where drunkenness is not tolerated. It is based on European culture, where light drinking complements a social gathering, but is not the center of it. If binge drinking is not seen as a rite of passage or the definition of popularity, then perhaps students will not feel the need to consume large quantities when they drink. Some campaigns that would help universities to adapt this model include alcohol awareness weeks, publicizing normative drinking patterns, and “lifestyle management” courses in which students learn about healthy drinking levels and using alcohol within the context of safety (Sullivan et al. 2002). This model has limitations as well. Because the American university culture is influenced largely by society as a whole, as people enter college they already have very strong ideas about the culture of drinking. Since these beliefs are deeply rooted in their ideology, college programs that combat this mindset may be too little, too late.

A third theory surrounding alcohol use is the disease model. The disease model purports that some people have an inherent predisposition to alcoholism and addiction, and thus alcohol prevention campaigns that target these specific audiences would be the most beneficial for college campuses. For this model to be effective, high-risk drinkers would need to be identified and persuaded to partake in recovery programs. Examples of effective plans include mandatory first offense classes for those students caught breaking campus-drinking rules, interventions designed to target college students, or designated driver programs to help keep intoxicated people from hurting others. A very large limitation of this model is that it is based on the idea that high-risk drinkers will willingly identify themselves and seek treatment. Most heavy drinkers do not consider themselves to be problem drinkers and therefore the program would lack in participants. Because a person’s medical history is private there would be no way a university could target high-risk drinkers outside of people stepping forward on their own.

Besides these three prevention models other basic prevention programs also exist. Students who tend to overestimate the amount of binge drinking that occurs on their campuses would benefit from programs where the actual drinking norms of their school are announced. However, half of all college binge drinkers underestimate the amount of drinking at their school so by publicizing actual amounts some students may be encouraged to drink more so that they can fit in with their college standard (Wechsler et al. 2000). This type of program was used at the University of Kansas for several years and it was largely ignored by the student body. Students were indifferent to the fact that a small percentage of their college body drank 0-5 drinks when they went out. This could have been because only 2,000 or so students completed the normative drinking survey at a school of 25,000, so the amount 0-5 did not seem like an accurate portrayal of drinking at KU. A second problem was that many students would drink as much as they felt like especially if their immediate friends were drinking more than the announced average.

Prevention programs that begin in high school might be more effective than those that target first year college students because younger audiences may be more affected by learning what actual drinking norms are. Often by the time students reach college they already have a strong idea about what acceptable drinking behavior is, so younger students may be more influenced by learning how to make safer decisions regarding alcohol use. Once students reach college a separate prevention possibility is the use of peer counseling. Students have better rapport with people of the same age versus an older administrator. They tend to listen more to someone who they see as nonparental, and nonthreatening. Programs run by administrators come off as hostile lectures on right versus wrong, but the same sorts of talks given by peers are seen as less threatening (Bergen-Cico 2000). However, differences in peer norms vary by age and class so this must be taken into account when peer counseling is considered. Freshmen may not listen to upperclassmen because they feel that they can’t relate to them. The most effective programs seem to be the ones that incorporate different aspects from several models of prevention.



It is important to remember that no two students are the same, so when considering prevention programs what works for one person may not be effective for another. Keeping this in mind, the best approaches seem to be the ones that are holistic in nature and therefore have a chance of reaching a greater number of students. Because a student’s age and place of residence play such a large role in binge drinking it would be important to implement policies that target these specific students. Peer counseling may prove effective so that freshmen can learn from fellow students about healthy drinking habits. An effort could be made to encourage both drinking freshmen and those who chose not to drink to create friendships. It is possible that with such friendships those who abstain could influence their drinking peers to consume smaller amounts by lowering the perceived drinking standard. It may also prove effective to promote the idea that neither alcohol nor the student is bad, but that misuse of alcohol carries serious repercussions. Programs that offer alternatives to drinking would allow both abstainers and those who drink to interact in a setting where alcohol does not have to be a factor in having fun. For continuous violators of university policy, a class may be offered that targets students with a tendency to abuse alcohol. Drinking students should not be punished, but instead should be encouraged to examine their lifestyle and decide for themselves whether or not continuous heavy drinking is a worthwhile experience. Alcohol use and abuse have become engrained in the American college experience and no policy no matter how great it sounds will ever fully eradicate alcohol use. Administrators should instead focus on policies that get students to think about their lifestyle and the choices that they make, and how binge drinking fits in with their overall college experience.


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