Alcohol and American University: A broken system
‘Students at AU think that we’re not a party school, so they sometimes don’t believe the data’
By Natasha LaChac
November 30, 2021
avid Kearns is a professor of psychology at American University. At the start of his drugs and behavior class, he presents students with a fact: Having a college education or higher is associated with lower rates of smoking, but higher rates of alcohol drinking.
When asked why they think this might be, students overwhelmingly respond that college culture perpetuates underage drinking.
American University campus culture
Like many universities, AU provides alcohol safety training. The University has a contract with Everfi, which supplies an AlcoholEdu course. This is AU’s last year with Everfi because they have signed on with a new vendor and will pilot a new course during January orientation. Everfi has been the mandatory provider of alcohol training up to present.
The AlcoholEdu training is mandatory for incoming students. Students take the course and survey before the semester begins, then take another survey a few months later to measure the “college effect” on student alcohol use, or the idea that college increases underage drinking.
According to a 2010 study on AlcoholEdu, Everfi said that their course reduces alcohol-related harms by 11 percent. However, the “college effect” may outweigh the benefits of a preventative course. AU’s Health Promotion and Advocacy Center collects data from AlcoholEdu and has observed an increase in alcohol consumption in new students.
“If they start out in the summertime as low-risk drinkers, they may become low or moderate risk drinkers one or two months later,” said Pritma Irizarry, director of HPAC.
The so-called “college effect” can create lasting problems for students. Kearns said that with alcohol, unlike other substances, the risk of addiction increases throughout a person’s lifetime.
There are a number of other risk factors that put students at a disadvantage for future alcohol abuse.
Young people are at a greater risk for alcohol abuse. Studies have shown that over half of people ages 18-25 are alcohol users. The “college effect” amplifies these numbers. The American College Health Assessment found that for fall 2020, the number of college students who drank in the last three months was 65.7 percent. Irizarry said that AU’s numbers are higher than the national average; about 74-78 percent of undergraduate students drink.
“There’s a disconnect at AU,” Irizarry said. “Students at AU think that we’re not a party school, so they sometimes don’t believe the data.”
This may be because AU doesn’t have a number of the risk factors that are typically associated with a higher risk of alcohol consumption. The University does not have traditional Greek life housing or a football team, both of which are associated with high-risk drinking. AU also has a predominantly female population, which is a protective factor.
Yet despite these protective factors, AU’s drinking rate is higher than the national average. This may be credited to the “grind culture” on campus.
“It’s fueled by this ‘work hard, play hard’ type of thing where students feel like they deserve alcohol after working and studying really hard,” Irizarry said. “I feel like a lot of students try to act as if they’re older.”
D.C. culture also exacerbates this “work hard” culture. Happy hour is a popular way to network in D.C., and students may feel left out if they cannot drink socially with their coworkers. At AU, it is popular to seek an internship on Capitol Hill, or a “Hillternship.”
Ashley Bastin, a junior and student rights chair for AU Student Government, observed this effect among her peers.
“I think at AU specifically, since we’re such a D.C.-driven, internship- and job-driven place, a big thing in the city is to go out for drinks,” Bastin said. “Even if you’re 18, if you can get your hands on a fake ID you want to be with your Hilltern colleagues.”
Current policy at AU
The majority of campus alcohol policy can be found in the Student Conduct Code‘s section on regulations in the residence halls. The disciplinary hearing process is also found in the code.
Under the Clery Act, the University is obligated to release an annual security report and to update a daily incident log. These documents include the number of alcohol related incidents and their location. They do not include demographic data.
The Student Conduct Office reviews policy annually and suggests edits to be signed off on by higher-ups. From the 2019-2020 school year to the current policy, the alcohol policy was updated to include more specific alcohol violations in the residence halls.
According to Irizarry, the University’s alcohol policy is outdated and ambiguous. She said, there have been graduate events with alcohol held on AU’s main campus, yet the buildings primarily serve undergraduate and underage students. There is no policy that specifies what to do in this situation or whether alcohol is permitted.
“There needs to be stricter enforcement and more sanctions,” Irizarry said. “When a policy’s not specific enough, then you can’t prevent alcohol abuse.”
HPAC had a staff member researching policy alternatives, but the employee left before reforms were proposed. HPAC is a four-person department, yet going into spring 2021 it will have just two employees until the University hires replacements. The high turnover rate prevents HPAC from comprehensively updating the alcohol policy, Irizarry said.
“I’ve been here since 2016 and I think we’ve tried to look at the alcohol policy every year,” said Irizarry.
After a complaint is filed, students receive an email from the Student Conduct Office. They are allowed a conduct hearing and are then notified of the results.
Ryan Hale, a senator-at-large for AU’s SG, has been pushing for reform. Last year, he passed a resolution through SG requesting information on conviction rates, demographics, punishments administered, rates of repeat offenders and other information. The reform also asks for an end to mandatory minimum sentencing for alcohol violations.
“We need to be flexible with our punishments,” said Hale. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all model, because we know how this works on a national level. Mandatory minimums do not work and they cause disproportionate harm to people who are disproportionately impacted.”
The mandatory minimums for an alcohol violation are strict. On a first violation, a student must complete alcohol safety training and is put on three months of academic probation. This means that they cannot serve on the board for any recognized clubs, and the violation is on their academic record.
“I would be willing to bet that 75-85 percent of those people in all of those organizations have consumed alcohol or weed on campus,” Hale said.
Strict sentencing for students can have potentially dangerous side effects. On a second alcohol violation, a letter is sent from the Student Conduct Office to a student’s parents.
AU students are at high-risk for alcohol abuse, but the resources available to them are lacking, students say.
Hale said that the strict rules encourage binge drinking because students feel pressured to be sneaky.
AU saw far fewer alcohol violations during the 2020-2021 school year because of COVID-19. The University’s Mid-Semester Residential Experience brought some freshmen to live on campus in the spring. The strict guest policies in the residence halls and the small student population kept both noise and alcohol violations to a minimum. By the fall 2021 semester, however, Irizarry said that alcohol violations were up again and similar to those in fall 2019, the last semester pre-COVID.
Kearns said this is because alcohol is familiar. People drink socially, especially in a high-pressure environment like AU. As a result, there is a stigma attached to those who seek help for drinking.
“They may think: ‘Why can’t this person drink in moderation like I do? It must be that they have some weakness,'” said Kearns.
Bastin observed this behavior among her peers. She said that popular Instagram accounts, like @stoolamerican, have built their platform on the idea that underage drinking is the standard for college students.
“Ultimately, if the individual themselves doesn’t want to seek help, they don’t want to get better, they don’t recognize it as a problem, it’s going to be very hard for them to get help,” Bastin said.
The fear of punishment and stigma surrounding alcohol abuse prevents many students from recognizing alcohol use as a problem or seeking that help. Students who have a problem do not want to seek help from the University because the alcohol resources are framed as a legal obligation rather than true care for the well-being of their students, Bastin said.
The University does offer resources to students, but they are hindered by lack of awareness and funding, Irizarry said.
“I don’t think a majority of students are as aware of the resources on campus as [we] would like them to be,” Irizarry said.
Even if more students were aware of the resources available to them, they might not be able to use them. The Office of Campus Life, which includes HPAC, the Counseling Center, Housing and Residence Life, and other student resources, only receives just over 3 percent of the annual budget.
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Hale said. “Drug policy and alcohol policy is changing, and AU is not.”