GAME DAY: BRIDGE LOOKS AT COLLEGE DRINKING
Second of two parts
Nov. 1, 2011 was supposed to be the day Michigan won an important battle in the war on high-risk college drinking. That’s the day a new state liquor policy, called the keg tag law, went into effect. From that day forward, anyone purchasing a keg of beer would have their name and contact information recorded by the liquor store. That person could face criminal charges if someone under the age of 21 was caught drinking from the keg.
Keg sales around college campuses plummeted.
But students didn’t stop drinking.
They switched to vodka. Instead of Solo cups filled with 10-proof beer, those cups brimmed with concoctions of sugary punch and 80-proof liquor.
The keg tag law, which some now believe actually made college drinking more dangerous instead of less, is emblematic of the frustrating, seemingly intractable struggle to reduce binge drinking and keep college kids safe.
Decades of research, policy changes and intervention efforts have only dented the rate of high-risk binge drinking at Michigan’s public universities. Scattershot efforts across universities, college towns and the Capitol have ranged from ineffective to contradictory to, as happened with the keg tag measure, a study in unintended consequences.
Administrators express frustration with a problem for which every solution seems akin to pushing on one side a balloon.
“Is it a problem here like every other university? Yes,” said Tony Voisin, associate vice president for student affairs at Central Michigan University. “Do we try to address it? Yes. Do I feel we have a hold on it? No.”
College presidents despair of the image it gives their schools (U-M and MSU have both made “top party schools” lists at various times), and police are resigned to the limits of writing tickets and breaking up parties on celebratory days such as home football games and holidays.
“We find students blacked out behind dumpsters,” said East Lansing Police Lt. Scott Wriggelsworth “We find them in the parking lot next to the police station.”
Those dangers are particularly acute in September, when students return to campus amid good weather, football games, and with a new crop of freshmen ready to experience the temptations of college life.
“We can educate and enforce all day long, but we can only do so much. At some point, it’s up to the individual,” Wriggelsworth said. “And it seems like one or two times a year, someone drinks themselves to death.”
SEARCHING FOR A MAGIC BULLET
Michigan colleges and 15 public universities don’t have a standard way to measure student alcohol use, so comparisons can be difficult. Bridge was able to gather the results of student alcohol surveys for only a handful of universities. Those surveys show similar alcohol usage among campuses ‒ with binge-drinking levels that hover around the national average of 35 to 40 percent of students who drink.
10 WAYS TO HELP CURB HIGH-RISK CAMPUS DRINKING
- EXPAND STATE KEG TAG LAW to sales of large quantities of hard liquor
- AMEND MICHIGAN’S MEDICAL AMNESTY LAW to require alcohol education for underage drinkers seeking medical help
- STANDARDIZE STUDENT DRINKING SURVEYS at state universities, with results posted on websites
- STOP SENDING MIXED MESSAGES TO STUDENTS, in part by creating consistent enforcement strategies in college towns
- DISPEL CAMPUS DRINKING MYTHS so students realize that most classmates don’t routinely drink to excess
- TOUGH, CONSISTENT POLICE ENFORCEMENT of alcohol laws, in tight collaboration with university officials
- REDUCE DANGER OF HIGH-RISK EVENTS such as by shortening the number of move-in days before class and limiting tailgates
- SOBER ALTERNATIVES Provide all-campus, alcohol-free events on high-risk days such as Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day
- FEED THEIR STOMACHS Gives students an opportunity to eat before celebration events, such as football games
- TAKE ON GREEK PARTY CULTURE Some surveys indicate frat and sorority members tend to drink more than non-Greeks
College drinking isn’t new, and for the majority of students, not a huge problem. The percent of students who binge drink – consuming five or more drinks in one sitting for men and four or more for women – is down slightly in the past decade nationally and at state universities for which survey data is available.
But for the close to 40 percent of college drinkers who say they binge drink, the negative consequences are frightening. For example:
- At the University of Michigan’s campus in Ann Arbor, almost four out of 10 students who said they drink have drank to the point of blacking out in the past year
- At Michigan State University, almost a quarter of students surveyed admitted to having unprotected sex while drunk in 2014 –double the rate of 10 years earlier
- At Northern Michigan University, one out of four students drank so much at some point in the past year, that they couldn’t remember where they were or what they did
- At Central Michigan University, 11 percent of freshmen said that they were the recipients of unwanted sexual contact while drinking; 5 percent said they’d taken advantage of someone sexually while that person was drunk, according to campus newspaper Central Michigan Life.
- One out of eight women students at U-M said they had been the victim of unwanted sexual contact while they were “too drunk to do anything about it.”
In the past year, three young people have died on or near state university campuses in alcohol-related incidents. And it’s common during a celebratory event ‒ a football game day, Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day or Welcome Week ‒ for dozens of students to be hospitalized.
Emergency room specialist Dr. Steven Kronick, who works at the University of Michigan Health System, put the problem in perspective in the first article in this series: “If there were another drug being used today that sent 20-30 kids a week to the emergency department, and a few of them died, it would be a national outrage.”
While there is no magic bullet, interviews with campus administrators, police, policymakers and researchers in Michigan and around the country suggest that the most effective efforts involve sustained, coordinated measures ranging from state policy to data sharing, to a willingness to take on unpopular fights, such as curtailing welcome week and cracking down on Greek student organization party culture.
What follows are some examples of what experts suggest state lawmakers and school administrators can do to help curb campus binge drinking:
Three things Lansing can do to help reduce dangerous drinking
1. EXPAND KEG TAG LAW TO BULK LIQUOR SALES
Ask Mark Meadows, the former East Lansing mayor and state representative who sponsored Michigan’s 2011 keg tag law. “We had fairly broad support,” Meadows said. “It seemed like a win-win.”
A 2011 Michigan law requires yellow tags on all kegs of beer bought and sold in the state in an attempt to trace who buys and sells kegs of beer. (Bridge photo by Brian Widdis)
The law cut down on big college beer parties, and protected beer suppliers who were losing money to “blind pigs,” private parties where the person who rented the keg would charge fellow students $5 for admission to a keg party.
Meadows has heard the law may be encouraging students to switch from keg beer to higher alcohol-content liquor. That impression is corroborated by the undergraduate student government at Michigan State University, which is lobbying the legislature to repeal the keg tag law, arguing that despite its intentions, it has made campus drinking more dangerous.
“At what point in the future,” Meadows asked about the keg tag law, “does this not prevent what we’re trying to prevent?”
Mary Jo Desprez, director of Wolverine Wellness, which directs alcohol education efforts at the University of Michigan, suggests another approach: rather than nixing the law, extend it to cover bulk sales of liquor. Record contact information of anyone purchasing multiple cases of liquor.
According to a clerk at Big Ten Party Store in East Lansing, who declined to give his name, it’s common for student groups to purchase multiple cases of vodka and whiskey on weekends of home football games.
Meadows, who is no longer in the Legislature, was intrigued by the concept.
“If there’s evidence that frats are going out and buying four cases of vodka, you can regulate that, just like we regulate the purchase of certain over-the-counter drugs because they’re used in the production of meth.
“There are ways to do this that are not very intrusive.”
2. AMEND THE MEDICAL AMNESTY LAW
In 2012, the Legislature passed and Gov. Rick Snyder signed a “medical amnesty” law which ensured that minors seeking treatment for drinking too much would not be charged with underage drinking.
The idea is to encourage students and their drinking pals to get medical help if they overdrink without fear of being charged with underage possession of alcohol, a misdemeanor. Going to the hospital might have saved incoming MSU student Jiayi Dai, who died in her bed after a long night of drinking with friends Aug. 22, 2014. Her blood alcohol level was .415, more than five times the legal limit of .08.
“Look, these kids are drinking no matter what law we have,” said Anthony Forlini, R-Harrison Township, the sponsor of the medical amnesty law. “The fact that they’re dying because they’re worried about getting in trouble or losing scholarships was wrong.”
The law has had a major impact on campuses. Alcohol-related admissions at UMHS jumped 50 percent on days of home football games in 2012, after the law went into effect. Data on admissions at hospitals near other college campuses was not available.
The law is helping prevent kids from dying, said U-M’s Deprez, but a simple tweak to the law could make it even more effective, experts say.
In Ann Arbor and East Lansing, students who receive an MIP (minor in possession of alcohol) from police are typically ordered by district court judges to attend alcohol abuse education through their university. By contrast, students who call for an ambulance or who have a friend who calls for them don’t get an MIP because of medical amnesty. But that also means they don’t get alcohol counseling.
“What scares me, is we could have a kid go to the hospital five times through medical amnesty, and that kid never gets a follow up,” Desprez said. “But if your son is standing on the corner with one beer, because he wants to belong but he doesn’t really drink, he’s coming in to talk to me. One might argue he is actually a low-risk kid standing in the wrong spot.”
It would be an easy fix, Desprez argues: tweak the medical amnesty law to say that underage drinkers who qualify for medical amnesty must receive whatever alcohol education is available in their community. In the college town of Lincoln, Neb., advocates point to the positive impact of offering campus-based counseling services to every student dropped off at the local detox center.
Desprez reports that students sent to her office for counseling have shown promising changes: 49 percent reported counting the drinks they consumed after taking part in the program; 46 percent reduced the number of drinks they consumed; 41 percent spread out drinking over a longer period of time, and 38 percent ate before and during drinking.
Bill sponsor Forlini isn’t enthused about adding a counseling requirement to the mix. “I’m not sure it makes a difference,” he said.
3. CONSISTENT, COMPARABLE DATA ON STUDENT DRINKING
The University of Michigan offers survey results showing levels of binge drinking among its students, while Michigan State doesn’t, instead asking students the average number of drinks they consume when they party. MSU surveys all students, while Northern Michigan University inquires about the drinking habits only of freshmen enrolled in a specific class. Other state public universities may have student drinking survey data, but resist releasing the information to the public.
As a result, it’s almost impossible to get a handle on how student drinking habits at Michigan schools compare with each other, or the nation. That makes comparing the success of one college’s alcohol education and prevention programs to that of a neighboring institution futile.
For example, the University of Michigan, Western Michigan and Central Michigan make all freshmen take a survey as part of their education programs; others, like Michigan State, take a survey of undergrads and grad students, while other schools survey just undergrads, who typically drink more than their older peers. Even if students take the same survey, when they take it can affect results: those taken in the fall typically show heavier levels of drinking than those in the spring.
And good luck getting all of that data quickly: Western Michigan University has provided only a small portion of its student drinking survey results to Bridge a month after the initial request. Other schools, including MSU and U-M, put results on their school website for anyone to see.
The state could require Michigan’s public universities to develop standard survey questions and protocol about student drinking habits, and post results on their websites. Such a standard survey could provide lawmakers, as well as concerned students and parents, a clearer understanding of alcohol consumption from school to school and whether university programs are having an impact on drinking behavior over time.
Seven things colleges can do to help reduce dangerous drinking
1. STOP SENDING MIXED MESSAGES TO STUDENTS
Critics say university alcohol policies can send mixed messages to the young adults they’re meant to protect. For example:
On football game days at Michigan State, students can be stopped by police for walking with an open container of alcohol on the City of East Lansing side of Grand River Avenue, but can carry a Solo cup of vodka when they cross the street onto campus. That’s because the city maintains a ban on open containers of liquor year-round. But on football game days, MSU alumni tailgate on lawns across campus. If alumni are going to be allowed to sit in lawn chairs with Solo cups, then anyone over 21 has to be allowed the same privilege.
The perception for an 18-year-old attending his first football game: MSU is more accepting of alcohol than its surrounding community.
At the University of Michigan, fraternities are banned from serving hard liquor at large parties most of the time, but can break out the Captain Morgan on football game days when students have the highest risk of dangerous drinking.
A course that includes alcohol education is a requirement for Northern Michigan University freshmen, one in four of whom report having unprotected sex or forgetting where they were while drinking. Those same freshmen walked into NMU’s football stadium Sept. 12 to discover beer was being sold for the first time.
Derek Hall, NMU’s new media coordinator, told Bridge that beer also will be sold at hockey games. Hall said he wasn’t involved in any meetings where the impact of stadium beer sales on student drinking was discussed. “The first game (with beer sales) was pretty laid back and casual,” Hall said. “We had maybe 30 or 40 people (in the football stadium’s beer garden).”
Eastern Michigan sold beer at its home football game Sept. 19, in a pilot program that was billed as an additional “revenue stream” for the university. Other universities that have begun beer sales at stadiums say that by doing so they hope that students and fans will be less likely to drink heavily before the game.
2. DISPEL CAMPUS DRINKING MYTHS
College kids drink more because they think other college kids are drinking more.
Long-running surveys at MSU show that students overestimate how often, and how much, their classmates drink, thanks to social media and YouTube videos like “I’m Shmacked,” which show drunken students on campuses across the country.
“Nobody posts on Facebook that they had a great time last night hanging out in the hallway of the dorm eating popcorn and talking with friends,” U-M’s Desprez said. “At the end of the year, that may be their favorite moment, but they’re more likely to post a photo with a red (Solo) cup.
“High school sophomores who have friends or siblings in college see that and think that’s what college is all about,” Desprez said.
Nationally, according to surveys, college students estimate that 96 percent of students have drank in the past month when the real number is less than 70 percent.
Perceptions become reality, because people want to fit in.
Since 2000, MSU has promoted a “social norming” program that focuses on correcting student perceptions about how much their classmates drink.
There are T-shirts and posters and restaurant table displays around the East Lansing campus offering drinking data points, such as 61 percent of MSU students consume four drinks or fewer when they attend a party, and that 92 percent disapprove of drinking to the point of passing out.
NMU’s health-class curriculum, Shible said, echoes the MSU “social norming” program.
“When kids say, ‘Everybody’s doing it,’ you have to give them a dose of reality,” Shible said. “Everybody’s not doing it.”
“You take what happens on campus, tell people, and correct misperceptions,” said Dennis Martell, health education services coordinator and head of MSU’s alcohol abuse efforts.
Today, fewer MSU students report that they drink than a decade ago (71 percent, compared with 78 percent). Just 5 percent say their grades have suffered because of drinking, half the rate of 10 years earlier. Then again, more students are having unprotected sex while drunk (23 percent in 2014, compared with 12 percent a decade earlier). Four out of 10 MSU students who drink at all say they “forgot where they were or what they were doing” in 2014, compared with 29 percent in 2004.
One interpretation: the gap between the typical college drinker and the high-risk drinkers is growing.
3. GET POLICE MORE INVOLVED
Even alcohol educators like Desprez and Martell acknowledge that education will only get you so far.
A recent example of education’s limits played out in August, when Central Michigan University administrators and Mt. Pleasant police took the extraordinary step of walking door-to-door in neighborhoods heavily populated by CMU students the week before classes begin, sitting down in the living rooms of hundreds of students to talk honestly about alcohol-infused, welcome-back-to-campus parties that would fire up as soon as parents pulled their minivans onto U.S. 127.
“We tell students, ‘Here’s what you can do, here’s what you can’t do,’” said Tony Voisin, associate vice president for student affairs at CMU. “‘Stay on your porch or on your lawn and we’re not going to bother you. Is that cool? We know you’re going to have a good time, but we don’t want anyone to get hurt.’”
What got less publicity was that fewer than a third of those arrests and citations were CMU students. “The rest were friends or students from other campuses,” Voisin said. “Our students know the game, they know the rules. But what can we do about other people?”
One of those “other people” died last year on CMU’s campus – a young man, visiting friends on campus, who got drunk and separated from his friends, and drowned in a campus pond.
Sometimes, the best way to reduce dangerous drinking is through an aggressive, old-fashioned police presence.
That’s where people like Lt. Steve Gonzalez of the East Lansing Police Department step in.
On a patrol of neighborhoods heavily populated by college students on Sept. 12, the day of a big football game between MSU and Oregon, Gonzalez spoke of the strategy of knocking down parties quickly, before they grow too large to control.
On game days, East Lansing and Michigan State University police officers team up on party patrols. Sometimes just the presence of officers helps moderate drinking.
About a dozen homes on Collingwood Street were having parties on their porches and front lawns the afternoon of the MSU-Oregon football game. Students roamed from party to party, and the crowds swelled to the sidewalk and beyond.
Three police vehicles parked on the street, with officers occasionally wading into the crowds.
Very few were arrested or cited. The threat of arrests kept the parties manageable, Gonzalez said.
If police don’t scare students, maybe parents will. Beginning this school year, U-M is sending letters to parents of freshmen who have two alcohol or other drug violations on campus, or one violation that includes medical care, property damage or driving under the influence. You can read the policy here.
4. TAKE A TACTICAL APPROACH TO HIGH-RISK EVENTS
The period between when students move into dorms for the fall semester and the beginning of classes has always been trouble. So MSU cut its Welcome Week in half, with freshmen moving into dorms on a Sunday and classes beginning on a Wednesday, with numerous activities to keep students busy during those days. The result ‒ alcohol issues plummeted, East Lansing Police Lt. Gonzalez said.
U-M cut the length of its Welcome Week, too, with similar results. It’s an example of a tactical approach schools are taking to make high-risk events a little less risky for students.
MSU also has a tailgating area where alcohol is not allowed, and limits the hours before game time that tailgating can begin in the lots around Spartan Stadium. It also eliminated drinking games in its tailgate areas (though they proliferate on the lawns of fraternities and off-campus housing).
Other schools have taken a harder line on tailgate drinking. Notre Dame halts all tailgates at kickoff, for example.
Some tactics are less controversial. Students are more at risk of alcohol poisoning when they drink on an empty stomach. So U-M is opening its dormitory cafeterias early on some game day Saturdays this fall with the practical goal of getting food in student stomachs before they head to tailgate parties that start as early as 8 a.m.
“We know that drinking culture doesn’t change overnight and we know that it’s going to be more than a one-year battle,” Cooper Charlton, U-M Central Student Government president, told the Michigan Daily student newspaper. “That being said, we want to meet students where they’re at and we know students start drinking very early in the mornings for game days, and especially for (football games) that start at noon.”
University of Michigan fans play beer pong in front lawns up and down the streets in Ann Arbor, MI on Saturday, September 12, 2015. The day’s football game was the first home game of the school year and traditionally a day of heavy partying. Universities are spending millions to curb dangerous drinking, yet campuses continue to have large numbers of arrests, hospitalizations and even deaths every year. (Bridge photo by Brian Widdis)
5. FUND CAMPUS EFFORTS
MSU’s Health Education Services staff visits freshmen dorms to play a “Know Your Solo Cup” game, where students are often stunned to learn how little vodka in the bottom of a cup is the equivalent of one drink.
Michigan has a “Stay in the Blue” campaign, with a mobile app that offers advice for keeping blood-alcohol levels below the legal limit for driving, from motherly (eat before drinking) to technical (fill cups only one-third full of beer when playing beer pong).
Northern Michigan University, with about the same percentage of students who binge drink as the state’s two biggest public universities, has virtually no alcohol program.
The entire budget at NMU for alcohol education is $70,000, which includes the $60,000 the university pays Lenny Shible, health promotion specialist for the university. NMU’s alcohol education is covered in a required health class, supplemented by peer education by fellow students.
It’s not much, Shible admits, but he doesn’t have the budget for much more.
“Clearly there are programs that have more impact than others,” Shible said. “Generally, if you want to change the culture, you have to reach the culture. We’re not reaching the culture.”
Federal funding for research on campus drinking has dried up.
The Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Drug Use and Violence Prevention, a program of the U.S. Department of Education, provided research, training and technical assistance to universities. That funding was eliminated in 2012 and the Center closed, with educators and researchers expressing frustration at the lack of progress in decreasing dangerous drinking.
“All those efforts caused some issue fatigue,” John D. Clapp, the center’s director when it closed, told the New York Times.
The feeling, he said, was “Hey, we tried this, and it’s time to move on.”
Individual donors willing to earmark money for alcohol awareness and prevention programs are few, said U-M’s Desprez. Her program, at a wealthy, Big Ten university, isn’t starved for cash, Desprez said. Still, give her more money, she said, and she could do more.
But the funding/results equation is part of the trouble with campus efforts, that, in general, have not had newsworthy success anywhere.
The binge-drinking figures at Northern Michigan University, with its tiny alcohol abuse prevention budget, and U-M are similar, with both hovering around the national average.
“Are we still looking for a magic bullet? Sure,” said NMU’s Shible. “Is there a magic bullet? Probably not.”
6. TAKE ON THE GREEK PARTY CULTURE
On Sept. 10, two days before the first big football weekend of the fall, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel held an unprecedented meeting with the university’s Greek organizations, requiring a majority of the campus’s sorority and fraternity membership to show. Schlissel said he was not happy with the Greek system’s contribution to U-M’s partying culture; adding that several notorious incidents involving alcohol abuse were harming students as well as the value of their U-M degree.
In January, members of Sigma Alpha Mu caused over $200,000 in damages to a northern Michigan ski resort during a wild, drunken party. Moreover, nearly half (46 percent) of U-M freshmen who drink say they do so at fraternities. Nationally, the percentage of students who drink at fraternities is 11 percent.
Most tragically, this summer a U-M fraternity member climbed to the roof of the Nickels Arcade on State Street after a night of drinking, eventually falling through the glass ceiling to his death. He was found to have a blood-alcohol level of .20, more than twice the legal driving limit in Michigan.
“(Michigan’s reputation) is not gonna be the kids who receive the Rhodes Scholarships and the Fulbright Scholarships, and the famous professors who do the work that you’re going to get reflected on for, or the National Medal for the Arts that our faculty won this past week,” Schlissel told the assembled Greek students. “It’s going to be the ‘Shmacked’ videos.
“So it’s really up to you what the value of your education is going to be, what the reputation of this institution’s going to be,” he told them, according to The Michigan Daily.
The reaction? Some in the audience treated him like the chief party-pooper of “Animal House,” Dean Wormer, coughing loudly over parts of his remarks.
It’s not just a U-M issue.
At Michigan State, Greek organization members are more likely to drink and more likely to drink heavily, than non-Greeks. In 2014, MSU Greeks reported that they drank five or more drinks on 2.3 occasions (on average) in the two weeks prior to a survey, nearly twice the number of binge drinking incidents as students not in the Greek system.
“Drinking is at the center of many of the problems and concerns of Greek life,” U-M Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones told Bridge. “We’re at a time of clearly needing to make changes inside the community.”
Those changes are difficult for universities like U-M and MSU to make, because the vast majority of fraternities and sororities are located off-campus, on private property owned by the Greek organization. Change becomes a matter of negotiation.
College town party stores know what their customers want: cheap beer in large quantities. (Bridge photo by Brian Widdis)
Back in February, after the resort trashing in northern Michigan, U-M reached an agreement with Greek organizations to ban hard liquor at large parties. That agreement notably excludes the large pre-game parties held on football game days.
Blake Jones said she hopes the hard-liquor ban will eventually be extended to game days. U-M and the school’s Panhellenic Association (a quasi governing organization for sororities and fraternities) also agreed that Greek houses should have “sober monitors” – students wearing bright orange shirts who report party problems to police. Some fraternities also hire private security firms to monitor their big parties, much like a program at Penn State.
The culture is not going to change overnight, Blake Jones said. But it needs to change.
7. GET SERIOUS ABOUT CAMPUS-TOWN COOPERATION
At the University of Nebraska, the community and the university faced sobering news in the 1990s, when surveys revealed a binge-drinking rate roughly 50 percent higher than the national average.
The news led to soul searching and a town-gown partnership that continues today: Police tell the university about off-campus incidents involving students; the local detox center tells the city what bars are producing the drunkest patients; the police tell landlords about problem student renters.
The combined efforts saw the university bring its binge drinking rates down to the national average, and those rates continue to fall.
Like their Nebraska peers, administrators at Michigan, Michigan State and Central meet regularly with police, medical and community leaders to coordinate efforts to limit dangerous drinking on celebratory days such as football home games, Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day. One thing that’s done in Lincoln that’s not done on Michigan’s campuses: the names of everyone cited for alcohol offenses off-campus in Lincoln are forwarded to the university, with students summoned to the dean’s office.
In the first week of September, U-M’s Desprez worked as a volunteer helping some of the more than 6,200 new freshmen move into their dorms. All were required to take an online alcohol education test, sent to all freshmen during the summer. Most also arrived with their own expectations of what lay ahead.
“Every year we get a new class of first-year students who have spent the first 18 years (of their lives) getting media and other influential messages about what college life is like,” Desprez said.
“What keeps me up at night is asking whether we’re doing everything we can.”
- Unconscious students on hospital gurneys: A Game Day diary
- What we can do to reduce extreme college drinking
- How one Nebraska school cut dangerous drinking by a third
- Drinking students ring cash registers: the business of alcohol
- In campus hospitals, beds full of drinking casualties
- Stone-cold sober on game day? It really happens