Web Exclusives: March 1, 2002


An Alternative to Alcohol Abuse:
Housing Reform in the Residential Colleges

Students selecting colleges are inundated with statistics. American high school students can recite the U.S. News and World Report ranking, mean SAT scores, and of course the price tag at the colleges they hope to attend. But there are some other statistics that might paint a more accurate picture of what the campus is like. Take for example one competitive college on the eastern seaboard.

At this university, 40% of women have reported being sexually harassed in the alcohol-laden social scene. Many minorities feel alienated by the heavy drinking on campus, and Black Enterprise magazine failed to list this college in the top 50 schools for black students despite the university’s high academic reputation. Binge drinking is a significant problem; 19.5% of students had reported bingeing three times in a two-week period, and 45.8% of students had binged at least once in that time. The most troubling statistic is because of the college’s culture of alcohol abuse, 6% of students say they have thought about transferring to other schools. Is this a university you would encourage your child to attend?

Unfortunately, this data doesn’t belong to our neighbor Penn: this is the current state of our university. Despite Princeton’s academic excellence, there is a serious problem in the undergraduate society. A minority percentage of students on this campus abuse alcohol, but their behavior defines the Princeton experience for the entire population. Harvard researcher Henry Wechsler has identified "secondary binge effects" that victimize many students on college campuses, and especially moderate or nondrinkers. Princeton must take additional steps to support and protect these victims, and new programs should start with alcohol-free living options in the residential colleges.

Current State of the University

A clear understanding of the alcohol problem should begin with university policy regarding alcohol on campus. The alcohol policy bans alcohol consumption that "(a) intimidates, threatens, or injures others; or (b) leads to the destruction of property; or (c) infringes on the peace and privacy of others." University research shows that these rules are largely ignored. Because of others’ drinking, 38% of students have their living space "messed up," 34% have studying interrupted, and 19% of students feel physically unsafe. 12.6% of drinkers say they have damaged property while under the influence. With this level of social disturbance, the consequences of the Alcohol Policy should be enacted frequently. In fact, only 6% of Princeton students report getting in trouble because of their alcohol use, which is less than the national level of 10%. A better indicator of university vigilance is that 8% of Princeton students feel the alcohol policy is "not enforced at all."

The problem with the policy is that the onus for reporting the violation is placed on the victim who suffers the secondary binge effects. In essence, students who are disrupted must "narc" on their peers, something most would avoid except in the most flagrant violations. Furthermore, national research shows that the vast majority of students who choose not to binge drink are still victimized by their bingeing peers. Wechsler found that at schools with bingeing rates similar to Princeton’s, 81% of abstainers and non-binge drinkers still suffer secondary effects because of others’ alcohol consumption. When all housing options are permissive of alcohol use and abuse, this problem is magnified because there is no physical haven from bingeing.

The problems of alcohol abuse at Princeton led the university to invest significant effort and resources to change the culture. Most of these efforts have created new venues for entertainment, such as the UFO, artistic events in Frist, and frequent parties sponsored by the Trustee’s Alcohol Initiative. But no amount of money can change the fact that after these events are over, students must return to their dorms to step over vomit as they brush their teeth and fall asleep to the sound of urination on the wall outside their room. A resident adviser concluded, "yet another freshman class has been caught between official threats and marauding drunken hordes… there is no functioning non-alcoholic social outlet for mainstream Princeton students."

In addition to being physically and emotionally disruptive, alcohol use at Princeton is also divisive. Women and minorities feel especially frustrated with the current system. Many women feel intimidated by the alcohol consumption on the "Street" on Thursday and Saturday nights, but feel there is no social alternative. Many minorities dislike the atmosphere and heavy-drinking at the clubs; while more than half of white Princeton students binge drink, fewer than a third of non-white students binge. Some minorities "feel that the administration, by continuing to distance itself from the eating clubs and their undeniable effect on the campus atmosphere, is in essence turning a blind eye to their precarious situation." The USG report on women’s issues concludes "there seems to be little the University can do to make the school’s social scene more hospitable and positive…save for continuing to research and test social and dining alternatives."

The only attempt to create such alternatives has been the introduction of ten substance-free singles for upperclassmen. Students who choose to live in these rooms sign pledges not to consume tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs. This trial is sincere but flawed. The first problem is that students living in a single already have total control over substances in the room, so signing an official pledge changes nothing. Second, the rooms are spread out over two floors and have almost no physical separation from the regular rooms in the residence hall. This means that the substance-free students probably still deal with secondary effects from their drinking neighbors. Third, the effort won’t significantly affect the culture of alcohol abuse, because it is only open to older students. Juniors and seniors have already decided how to approach alcohol consumption and are probably not at great risk of being influenced by their drinking neighbors.

Despite the flaws of the current approach, changes in the alcohol policies of residence halls hold the most promise for changing the alcohol culture on campus. The university needs to expand the number of substance-free dorms (not just rooms) and also create "facilities-free" dorms. Students living in "facilities-free" dorms would pledge to keep alcohol out of the building and to use it elsewhere only in moderation. These options need to be made available to all students, but especially to incoming freshmen in the residential colleges.

The Need for Substance-Free and "Facilities-Free" Housing in Residential Colleges

The aim of "free" housing is to create a social environment where the peer atmosphere discourages irresponsible use of alcohol. It is especially important to provide this option to freshmen, because they are torn between two extremes of alcohol use. National studies show that 25% of freshmen are alcohol "abstainers" and that 22% are "frequent binge drinkers," and both percentages are higher than any other class. Princeton has a unique reason to target freshmen; most students have minimal experience with drinking before matriculation. Data in the Report on the 1998 Core Survey shows that 37% of students did not use alcohol in high school, and 34% used alcohol only one-to-six times per year before enrolling. This means the vast majority of freshmen (71%) are not even frequent drinkers when they start college, and definitely not binge drinkers. Indeed, the authors of the report determined that Princeton freshmen feel pressure to drink:

These findings also suggest that first-year students are especially vulnerable to pressures to drink. The increase in drinking they report may be more fully explained by the phenomenon of pluralistic ignorance, i.e., students drink even though uncomfortable doing so because they believe that otherwise they would be out of sync with their peers. We need to support the "silent majority" of students who are uncomfortable with the level of drinking on campus (but who think that they are in the minority).

Numerous national studies show the desire to keep alcohol out of undergraduate living-spaces. One- third of residential college students in America live in alcohol-free dorms, and an additional 13% would like to have rooms in those areas. 70% of colleges with self-diagnosed "major" drinking problems offer alcohol-free housing to students. Princeton research shows that there is interest on this campus as well. University studies show that 16% of undergraduates wish they could live in substance-free housing. This means that the 10 substance-free singles currently offered to upperclassmen represent only 1.4% of demand. It is safe to assume that there is additional interest for less restrictive "facilities-free" housing, although no such study has yet been conducted.

The university has already set the precedent for "free" housing in graduate college residence halls. An email sent by the graduate housing department to students said "Due to the special nature of Wyman House as the official residence of the dean of the Graduate School, there are special rules and regulations for Wyman residents… Wyman House and Cottage will be designated as ‘substance free’." If the university provides "free" living to graduate students to protect the dean’s house, then undergraduates should receive the same option to protect their health.

Further support for alcohol-free housing is found in studies of tobacco-free housing. Nationally, college students who did not smoke before matriculation and who lived in smoke-free dorms were found to be 40% less likely to start smoking than other nonsmokers who lived in open-housing. The tobacco-free dorms create a microcosm where peer pressure discourages smoking rather than enforces it, and the nonuser won’t feel obligated to light up. Similarly, the peer environment created by moderate or nondrinkers in alcohol-free housing should discourage irresponsible use of alcohol and keep freshmen from feeling pressured to binge.

Creating microcosms of responsible alcohol use may be Princeton’s best chance to curb the bingeing problem, because the current peer pressure of the entire university definitely supports and encourages drinkers. That is what the freshmen class, including the 71% with little or no drinking experience, is told by prefrosh mailings. Last summer, Dean Deignan sent a letter to the parents of the Class of 2005 to inform them about the culture on campus: 46% of current students binge, 83% drink, and 97% feel that the social atmosphere promotes alcohol use. The official social norm, proven by the university itself, places infrequent and nondrinkers in the minority of campus opinion before they get dorm room keys.

These statistics, while true, are misleading. National studies show that 91% of alcohol consumed on campuses is used by only 44% of students, the bingers. The mean frequent binger has 18 drinks per week and the mean binger has 5 drinks per week, but a nonbinger has just 0.8 drinks per week. This is critical to combating the alcohol problem at Princeton. Nonbingers, the category of most undergraduates and a large majority of prefrosh, consume just 9% of the alcohol on most campuses. Housing that puts these students together would reinforce their behavior, not the more noticeable behavior of bingers. Wechsler’s research indicates that "a strong relationship exists between students’ perception of their friends’ binge drinking and their own drinking," so creating a peer network of non-bingers has tremendous potential to improve campus life.

It seems that the university has reached many of the same conclusions. In a column from the Princeton Alumni Weekly, President Tilghman observed that "first-year undergraduate students often express their shock at the role of alcohol in social life on campus." She also believes that "in the end the only way to solve this is peer pressure. We have to get the student body to impose peer pressure, for drinking to become really uncool." In a campus culture dominated by open-tap nights and room-parties, there has to be a physical refuge where responsible drinkers can find support and a social alternative. Allowing students to live in "free" housing is the only way the "silent majority" will ever find its voice.


There is a compelling need to implement substantial "free" housing for the 2002-03 school year. The students on campus have already demonstrated significant interest, and there is reason to believe that an even larger percentage of incoming freshmen would feel more comfortable in moderate or non-drinking housing. There is no cost to the university, and it is the best way to change the culture in which students have to eat, study, and sleep in.

The Residential Colleges should commit themselves to providing substance-free and facilities-free housing to all undergraduates who commit themselves to the conditions of such an environment. As part of the prefrosh housing survey, interested students should be able to pledge to live by the code of conduct in either type of "free" housing. The College would put those students in the same entryways and dorms (not the scattered rooms offered to upperclassmen) and carry out the rest of the housing process as normal. Similarly, "free" housing should be created in all other dorms for room-draw, with the same pledge. Occasional violations of the pledge should be dealt with in the same way as any other alcohol-infraction on campus, and students should be asked to move only if they stop supporting the substance or alcohol policy of the community.

"Free" housing is an experiment with no drawback fiscally, logistically, or socially. There is potential for a huge advantage, one seen by future generations of high school seniors who memorize rosy statistics about the inclusive and healthy social scene at Princeton to go along with a decades-long superiority over Harvard and Yale. If this is the culture you would like your children or grandchildren to find at Princeton, "free" housing programs offer the best step in that direction.

by Brian Muegge ’05

You can reach Brian at bmuegge@princeton.edu