College students who abuse alcoholic beverages experience several harmful consequences. Students who drink heavily may have periods of memory loss (blackouts), nonlethal or fatal injuries, may engage in risky sexual behavior, and may drop out of school due to academic failure or illness. Young women who binge drink to the point of extreme intoxication may put themselves at risk for sexual assault.
Several national analyses indicate that academic deterioration is associated with drinking. There is a consistent connection between lower self-reported grade averages and higher levels of alcohol consumption. One study of 429 students at a large Midwestern university found that the negative effect of alcohol use was most pronounced on educational attainment in college among those students who ranked as high academic performers during their high school years.
Many students who drink report periods of memory loss, also known as black outs. In one study, 54 percent of frequent binge drinkers described at least one incident in the past year of having forgotten where they were or what they did while drinking. Students who misuse alcohol also risk physical injury, even death (Perkins, 1992; Presley et al., 1996a,b; Wechsler et al., 1998, 2000a). The United States. Department of Education has evidence that at least 84 college students have died since 1996 due to alcohol poisoning or alcohol-related trauma. But many believe the number is much greater, because reporting is not complete. Even when only alcohol-related traffic crashes are taken into consideration, estimates are much higher. A recent study estimates that more than 1,400 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related accidental injury and 500,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 suffer unintentional alcohol-related injuries each year.
In one study, 30 percent of students who drank in the past year said they had driven after drinking alcohol during the past 30 days. In the Core survey, one-third of students (39 percent of drinkers) admitted driving while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs within the past year (Presley et al., 1996a,b).
About one-half of all fatal traffic crashes among 18- to 24-year-olds involve alcohol, and many of those killed are in college. SAMHSA data show that an estimated 18 percent of drivers age 16 to 20-about 2.5 million adolescents-drive under the influence of alcohol (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 1999).
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that motor vehicle crashes are the leading killer of young people ages 15 to 20, and it is likely that many of these young drivers and passengers were college students.
Alcohol Abuse & Suicide
Little research exists on the link between alcohol abuse and rates of suicide among college students. Although there appears to be an association, the nature of the underlying relationship has yet to be settled. There is evidence that alcohol misuse may possibly lead to thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts among college students (Presley, 1996a, 1996b, 1998), but it is also credible that suicidal thoughts may lead to increased drinking since, for some, depressive disorders increase the tendency to drink heavily.
Impact of Alcohol Abuse on Wellness
Harmful short-term health consequences impact heavy-drinking college students, such as hangovers, nausea, and vomiting. Longer-term health effects of heavy alcohol use may include weakened resistance to infection (Engs and Aldo-Benson, 1995) and increased vulnerability to lifelong alcohol problems and its incidental physical consequences such as cirrhosis of the liver (Vaillant, 1996).
Impact of Campus Alcohol Abuse on College Life
The consequences of heavy drinking on campus likewise affect non-drinking students. Property damage, vomiting in public, and litter are typically seen on campuses with heavy drinking populations. In one national study, 8 percent of all students (11 percent of drinkers) admitted damaging property or pulling a fire alarm in connection with their drunkenness (Engs and Hanson, 1994). Excessive drinking is also a contributor to fights and interpersonal and sexual violence. It is approximated that each year 600,000 college students aged 18 to 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking and 70,000 college students aged 18 to 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape (Hingson et al., 2002). Sleep loss and disrupted study time on the part of students affected by others’ drinking are common. In CAS, 61 percent of non-bingeing students living on campus said they had their sleep or study time disrupted because of someone else’s drinking (Wechsler et al., 1998). In the same study, 50 percent of non-bingeing students living on campus also stated that at least once during the past year they had to “babysit” another student who drank too much (Wechsler et al., 1998).
More than 25 percent of college administrators from schools with relatively low drinking levels and more than half of administrators from schools with high drinking rates reported that their campuses have a “moderate” or “major” problem with vandalism and property damage (Wechsler, et al., 1995c). Strains in “town/gown” relations (i.e., between the community and the campus) over student alcoholic beverage consumption may harm the institution’s reputation. Similarly, failure and dropout rates due to student alcohol misuse can harm a college’s academic reputation, resulting in the loss of tuition and the ability to draw in high-caliber students. Additional factors impacting an institution include the cost of the additional time and stress felt by college staff who must deal with student alcohol abuse. Additionally, the costs of lawsuits brought gainst the college for liability in cases of injury, property damage, or death contribute to the cost.
Research demonstrates that alcohol use is associated with aggressive behavior (Chermack and Giancola, 1997; Roizen, 1993). Although there’s little research on this issue as it affects college students specifically, studies show that a significant proportion of young adults engage in fighting while drunk (Wechsler et al., 1995c). Alcohol-related aggressiveness is a real problem on college campuses, but it is not clear whether alcohol promotes aggressive behavior in some people or whether individuals who are more aggressive tend to drink more (Giancola, 2002).
Alcohol-related sexual assault is a common occurrence on college campuses. Although estimates of the incidence and prevalence vary dramatically because different sources use different definitions and many victims are unwilling to report sexual assaults to the police or other authorities, at least 50 percent of college student sexual assaults are associated with alcohol use. When alcohol is involved, acts meeting the legal definition of rape seem to be more likely to happen.
In one study, both the victim and the perpetrator had been drinking in 97 percent of sexual assaults involving alcohol (Harrington and Leitenberg, 1994). In another study the rate was 81 percent (Abbey et al., 1998). Because rates of alcohol consumption are higher among White college students than among their African-American peers, it’s not unexpected that alcohol-related sexual assaults seem to be more common among White than among African-American college students (Abbey et al., 1996; Harrington and Leitenberg, 1994).
The fact that alcohol consumption and sexual assault frequently coincide does not mean that alcoholic beverages cause sexual assault. However, in all likelihood alcohol plays an important but complicated role (Abbey, 2002).
In terms of racial and ethnic differences, it appears that rates of drinking consequences closely follow the racial/ethnic patterns reported for intake levels (Presley et al., 1996a,b). That is, White students have the most problems as a result of heavy drinking, followed by Hispanics. African-Americans and Asians have the fewest reported problems.
Although many studies demonstrating the consequences of college campusdrinking have been published, a systematic assessment of the damage due to abuse of alcohol still needs to be completed.