On the Campus: February 21, 1996

Survey Says . . . Tigers Tipple

Students Identify Alcohol as a Central Element of Princeton's Social Life

Freshman year, my idea of a good time was a glass-or six-of warm "Meister Chow" (Brau) anywhere on Prospect Avenue, followed by a 4 a.m. trip to the WaWa on the way back to my room in Forbes College. By sophomore year "the Street" had started to get boring, so I went to room parties instead. But the only change in my drinking was that I drank Hawaiian Punch spiked with vodka instead of beer. It wasn't until my junior year-comfortably installed in the social life of my eating club-that I began to ease up on the drink.
Shocking? It shouldn't be. My alcohol autobiography is a confession to which a large number of Princetonians could sign their names. Last spring, the Fund for Improvement of Post-Secondary Education conducted a survey of 30,000 college students nationwide. It asked them to report on the role alcohol played in their lives and in the social atmosphere of their campuses. Princeton's Health Services distributed the survey to its students and received replies from 540 of them (296 of whom were undergraduates). At Princeton, 42 percent of students rated themselves as "heavy drinkers" who binged on alcohol (consuming five or more drinks at a sitting). A slightly higher number, 46 percent, said they were "moderate drinkers." Only 12 percent of Princetonians surveyed described themselves as "non-drinkers."
The amount of binge drinking that goes on at Princeton is close to the national average for four-year college campuses. Here, 48 percent of men described themselves as heavy drinkers, while the national average for college men is 51 percent. And 37 percent of Princeton women called themselves heavy drinkers, compared to a national average of 33 percent. Though the survey had a 6 percent margin of error, it is still interesting that Princeton women beat the national average for binge drinking. Does our competition with men in the classroom fuel competition with them in the taproom? Or does knowing that we socialize in an atmosphere constructed by men (clubs whose membership policies were "no girls allowed" until relatively recently) make us fight for our right to party?
The survey also reported students' perceptions of the role alcohol plays in their university community at large. Respondents from Princeton said alcohol was especially central to the social lives of fraternity members and male students, and they rated its importance to athletes and women close behind. Students evidently don't intend to change their drinking habits after graduation: 70 percent said they thought alcohol was central to the social lives of alumni (this high percentage may be influenced by the partying students see at Reunions).
Most striking was Princetonians' response to the question "Does the social atmosphere on this campus promote alcohol use?" The answer from 97 percent of respondents was yes, a statistic that looks grim in comparison to the average for four-year private institutions, 65 percent. But when Princeton is compared with Dartmouth, a school with a similar social atmosphere (it's also located in a sleepy town, but has fraternities instead of eating clubs), the statistic is the same.
Throughout the years, student-run groups have attempted to combat alcohol abuse on campus. Ten years ago, Students for Alcohol Responsibility was formed, but the group wilted under the pressure of juggling social activities and educational initiatives. From 1985-90 the need for such an organization was particularly critical: alcohol abuse resulted in one death, one dismemberment, and scores of intoxicated students being taken to McCosh Health Center. Though the number of students taken for treatment has remained steady over the past few years, thankfully no calamities have occurred.
It could be that Princeton is finally sobering up from the '80s-student interest in alcohol-free social events seems to be on the rise. There is "Sportnighter," an evening of late-night sporting events; "Natural High Night;" and a recent arrival on the nonalcoholic scene, the Harmony Club, which was formed this fall. The club promotes student involvement in alcohol-free parties, discussion groups, trips, and community service. In addition to developing its own events, the club acts as a liaison between students and pre-existing alcohol-free activities. Says Club President Graham Bullock '98, "People want to get involved, but they may be reluctant, especially as freshmen. If they can sign up with a group, they're more likely to join in." Harmony's vice-president, Duvon Davis '98, stresses the nonselective nature of the club: "People who drink are invited. The only requirement is that you don't drink at the event."
Most of the club's participants are underclassmen, which limits its impact, but it makes sense for Harmony to focus on freshmen and sophomores, upon whom binge-drinking takes the hardest toll. And for the university as a whole, says Director of Health Education Karen Gordon, the club is "good support for all students and especially the 58 percent who are moderate or nondrinkers and may feel at odds with what's perceived as the prevailing way of socializing at Princeton."

Liz Vederman, a senior English major from Turnersville, New Jersey, spends some of her free time at Terrace Club.