The rate of student alcohol abuse has remained unchanged for 30 years: Nearly 40 percent of 2010 U.S. college students engage in high-risk alcohol consumption. That means, unfortunately, that binge drinking is as widespread among today’s freshmen as it was for their parents’ generation and potentially just as lethal. Each year, almost 2,000 U.S. college students die from alcohol-related causes. An estimated 600,000 others are injured while under the influence.
Loss of life is reason enough to act, but excessive drinking, as repeated studies have shown, can also lead to academic problems, unsafe sex and sexual abuse. New research confirms that alcohol can damage brain development among college-age men and women, impairing functions associated with focus, decision-making and impulse control. As a leader, a parent and a physician, I believe that this particular “given” of college life has led to far more deaths and harm than we should tolerate.
Binge drinking is typically defined as a pattern of drinking that corresponds to men consuming five or more alcoholic drinks, and women consuming four or more, in about two hours. Some colleges have made strides in recent years in chipping away at this intractable problem, but no single institution has found the silver bullet.
Now we believe that we can make real progress — and that the key lies in collaboration. This spring, 32 colleges and universities around the country joined in an unprecedented group initiative to address high-risk drinking on our campuses. This alliance, the Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking, represents a serious effort to tackle a persistent student health problem by using rigorous scientific methods and sharing data, outcomes and strategies to achieve a common aim in multiple educational settings.
By bringing together great researchers and great practitioners, and sharing best practices, colleges and universities are much more likely to make a lasting impact than if each school goes it alone. This summer, teams of administrators and implementers of policy from each school gathered at Dartmouth College with the country’s leading experts on high-risk drinking for the first of three learning sessions. These sessions are part of our effort to develop site-specific solutions that we hope will begin to succeed where one-size-fits-all approaches have failed.
The Learning Collaborative methodology, developed by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Cambridge, Mass., aims to narrow the gap between what we know through research and what we do in practice. The approach seeks to spread and adapt that knowledge to varied settings. When I worked as a public health physician in countries such as Peru and Rwanda, I witnessed remarkable outcomes from implementing this methodology. It has been successfully applied in many medical and public health venues — for example, in reducing surgical complication rates and improving health care delivery in the developing world.
The same positive potential can be unleashed through the Learning Collaborative as colleges exchange strategies, experiences and findings. One example involves brief motivational interventions, through which counselors meet with at-risk students to help them think about their alcohol use and to prompt consideration of ways to change their behavior. Such programs have been highly effective in reducing drinking and related consequences, a series of studies over the past 10 years has shown, yet recent estimates suggest that less than two-thirds of U.S. colleges and universities have them in place. We can do better.
Another promising strategy is bystander intervention. Ultimately, students themselves must change an alcohol culture. Bystander intervention empowers students to get involved when they see their peers losing control. Such programs — including the Quaker Bouncers at Haverford College and the Red Watch Band program at Stony Brook University — have shown success and could be adapted and applied at many more institutions.
In the battle against high-risk drinking on campus, a great deal is at stake. The health of our students is critical to their ability to succeed in college and in life. As today’s students evolve into engaged citizens and tomorrow’s leaders, we owe it to them, to their parents and to society not to let them down.
Jim Yong Kim is president of Dartmouth College.