Exclusives: March 1, 2002
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 universitys
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 colleges 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
doesnt belong to our neighbor Penn: this is the current state
of our university. Despite Princetons 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
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 Princetons, 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
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 Trustees
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
is no functioning non-alcoholic social outlet for mainstream Princeton
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 womens issues concludes "there seems
to be little the University can do to make the schools 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 wont
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
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
House and Cottage will be designated as substance free."
If the university provides "free" living to graduate students
to protect the deans 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 wont 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 Princetons 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. Wechslers 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.
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.
reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org