Preparing for your first day at college involves more these days than just getting a meningitis shot. The University of California at Berkeley is instituting an online-only alcohol education course, mandatory for all incoming freshmen and transfer students. Although exempt from having to take the course themselves, existing students seem annoyed or apathetic about the development, based at least on an informal straw poll of about a dozen Berkeley students and the tenor of comments and postings on popular Cal-related blogs. But are students just whining over spilt Miller, or has the university made a costly goof?
The program, AlcoholEdu, is produced by Outside the Classroom, a private trust that proclaims its independence from the alcohol industry. The program takes about three to four hours, and students are encouraged to do it in multiple sittings. Despite the format, it doesn't stray far from traditional curricula: Drinking is bad for your health and relies on targeted advertising to suck you in, but if you're going to do it, here are the sensations and health effects you can expect, and here's how much you can drink before driving home. The course features campy video reenactments of college students in After School Special-style tough situations. Short essays about "personal attitudes on drinking" provoke computer-generated homilies; for instance, the fictional confession "I come from a family of frigid WASPs who drink to mask their pain" yielded the bland response "Family habits can often affect our own thoughts on drinking." The quizzes and culminating final exam require an 80 percent average to pass. Based on the experience of one reporter, it's not tough to do so.
The move is Cal's second attempt in two months to curb student drinking, after a couple of drinking-related embarrassments led to a ban on alcohol at all on- and off-campus fraternity and sorority events. The first scandal was the not-so-funny hazing investigation of Pi Kappa Phi, which led the university to temporarily dismantle the chapter on July 5 after discovering that brothers repeatedly fired at a pledge with some sort of pellet or BB gun. The event that spurred the moratorium itself was an April 30 Animal House-meets-The Love Boat Kappa Alpha Psi party on a Blue and Gold Ferry in Oakland that turned rowdy. Some 75 police officers were called in to quell the disturbance and four students were arrested for public intoxication and resisting arrest. The ban went into effect May 9, and has remained in effect since then.
Like theme parties, drinking is sickeningly inescapable on college campuses these days. Less than one in five college students fully abstain from alcohol, according to a study from the Harvard School of Public Health. A national rise in binge drinking also has been accompanied by a collective pop-cultural obsession with college drinking -- from novels like Tom Wolfe's Ivy League booze cruise I Am Charlotte Simmons to Koren Zailckas' profoundly depressing Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, and even a binge-drinking-themed episode of Morgan Spurlock's TV series 30 Days. Consequently, schools around the country are investigating programs such as AlcoholEdu. Cal State East Bay, which used to provide comprehensive, mandatory alcohol education only for students in clubs and organizations, is looking into using it, according to a university health educator who asked to remain anonymous.
What's open for debate is whether such programs actually help reduce the extreme bingeing first described as a "major public health problem" during the early 1990s. The Harvard study looked at how college drinking habits change during such education or prevention campaigns. It concluded that even in the presence of educational programs and stiffer penalties for underage drinking, the number of "frequent binge drinkers" -- students who drink five or more drinks at a time at least three or more times in a two-week period -- increased over eight years from 19.7 to 22.8 percent. The Harvard study was conducted via survey at 120 colleges across the nation.
However, drinking decreased among other groups studied, including slightly fewer hardcore "occasional binge drinkers," who drink five or more drinks in a single sitting just once or twice every two weeks. The ranks of "occasional binge drinkers" shrank by 2.7 percent, and non-binge drinkers fell off by 3.4 percent. In short, alcohol programs have proven themselves to some degree -- at least in their ability to dissuade middle-of-the-road drinkers. But can any alcohol education program make a dent in the most party-hardy binge drinkers?
A post on the Berkeley-themed blog CalStuff points out what may be the biggest flaw in the university's approach: Much of this has been done before. "Does anyone think that this whole program is completely redundant, considering the years of DARE training and high school classes the state mandates that we take?" blog contributor Ben Narodick asked in a July 21 entry. Indeed, compared to the DARE curriculum, which includes alcohol education along with its more well-known lessons on "harder" drugs, AlcoholEdu offers little new information. Its main selling point seems to be, in the words of Cal media relations director Marie Felde, "You can't half-do it." But a quick run-through of the course, which is available online to parents and other concerned onlookers, seems to refute this. An Express reporter scored 82 percent while checking e-mail, reading a magazine, and listening to a CD.
Stacey Holguin, the official in charge of administering the program, says that the program has nonetheless shown its efficacy. According to Holguin, the manager of judicial affairs at the Cal Office of Student Development, AlcoholEdu already has been used at Cal for two years now, as a tool for sanctioning alcohol offenses, and as a mandatory training exercise for some students living in Greek residential communities. Holguin says it has shown positive impact in "nearly half" of its takers, measured via in-house survey, not to mention a reduced recidivism rate in alcohol violations from 9.5 to 5 percent. This figure is identical to one touted by Andrew Walls, a researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who claims that the AlcoholEdu program has produced a 50 percent reduction in "secondhand effects" of drinking -- hangovers, blackouts, and missed classes, not to mention old staples such as violence, physical illness, and property damage.
Given the program's lack of impact on existing students and complete irrelevance to the availability of alcohol on or off campus, why then the snippy online resistance to something that aims to improve the lives of students and not tread on their fun? Returning junior Narodick, an Alpha Epsilon Pi member, self-described "liberal drinker," and student senator, says it's the mode of delivery that bothers students. He described the Offices of Student Life and Development as an "Orwellian" institution whose mission was to police students rather than create a sociable student environment -- especially after the double whammy of the liquor ban and the mandatory AlcoholEdu.
Narodick, who writes for the Cal humor rag The Heuristic Squelch, says the blanket application of the program tends to "make students feel like children." He attributes the successes Holguin has seen to the fact that only volunteers, Greek pledges, or students being sanctioned for past behavior have taken the program so far. Once it is applied to the entire campus, he doesn't see it doing all that much to curb drinking. In support of his doubts, he points to a Denver Post article on the University of Colorado's mostly negative experience with AlcoholEdu. Rather than the moderate climb in quality of life witnessed by Walls, Colorado experienced a noticeable rise in both the incidence of binge drinking and in secondhand effects and damage. This led the university to try a much-cheaper, voluntary competitor.
Right now, it's one apparent failure versus a few documented cases of success. But regardless of AlcoholEdu's long-term ability to change the booze culture at Cal, its near-term legacy may revolve around how it changes the tone of dialogue between students and administrators.
"The program made me realize the attitude administration is taking toward its students," says incoming freshman Alex Kozak. "They look at us like irresponsible liabilities."
And the test?
"It brought out the rebellious teenager in me."
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