College drinking takes heavy toll

The price of alcohol to college students aged 18-24: 500,000 injuries, 70,000 sexual assaults and 1,400 deaths per year.

Those findings were revealed in April as part of a study commissioned by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Task Force on College Drinking. The task force comprised three dozen college presidents, scientists and students and was co-chaired by University of Notre Dame President Edward A. Malloy and Dr. Mark Goldman, distinguished research professor of psychology and director for the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Research Institute at USF.

Goldman said his fellow task force members were taken aback by the extent of the alcohol problem among college students nationwide.

“We had a number of national experts on the panel, and all of us knew that drinking was quite large,” Goldman said. “And I think despite that, all of us were still surprised.”

The 500,000 college students who suffer alcohol-related injuries per year represent a little more than 6 percent of the 8 million college students nationwide aged 18-24, Goldman said. He said the level of alcohol consumption on campuses were determined by the geography and social life of the campus.

“The situation with college drinking varies quite a bit from campus to campus, so that at a more general level campuses that are in college towns tend to be worse than campuses in cities,” Goldman said. “Campuses that have big-time college athletics tend to be somewhat worse. Campuses that have heavy, heavy involvement with the Greek system tend to be worse.

“So, on some of those dimensions, USF is not quite as bad as the others, but USF is a more complicated problem because a lot of the drinking takes place in the local community, like Ybor City, and is often not considered part of the campus drinking problem. It depends on what you want to count in.”

Goldman said, though, that USF compares favorably with other Florida institutions when it comes to acceptable levels of alcohol intake by its student body.

“I would say, overall, it’s probably less of an issue at USF than so at Gainesville, but it doesn’t mean it’s not an issue,” Goldman said. “There’s a lot of individual variability, and there are students on the USF campus who are drinking really problematic amounts.”

One of the most overlooked consequences of alcohol abuse by college students, Goldman said, could result in them paying more to attend school.

“There is a tremendous cost of property damage on campuses that has to do with alcohol use,” Goldman said. “Maybe USF is a little less the case because we’re much more of a commuter school, but there is lots of damage to dormitories and other kinds of facilities on college campuses that come from excessive drinking, and everybody’s paying for that. That’s in the tuition somewhere, or in the state budget somewhere.”

Also, Goldman said, drinking can negatively affect the primary duties of both drinkers and non-drinkers in a college setting.

“It interferes with the purpose of college, which mainly is studies,” he said. “Your non-drinking students who live in dorms, for example, might not be able to study as well or sleep as well because of the alcohol consumption that’s going on all around them. People who are drinking themselves, even when they sober up, may not be quite as sharp as they might be when they have to study for that exam.

“Overall, they’re very subtle kinds of influences that people tend not to think about, but they’re there.”

Goldman said drinking used to be done a glass at a time, which made it easier for drinkers to control their intake. But that has changed with the growth of binge drinking.

“What happens nowadays is people are more and more drinking in these settings where they’re pouring alcohol down their throats: the funnel techniques and lying under the keg techniques and all that kind of stuff,” Goldman said. “They get enough alcohol into their stomach before they pass out so that actually the alcohol continues to be absorbed, and we keep seeing deaths all around the country from, essentially, alcohol overdose.”

He said the alcohol abuse greatly outweighs the combined effect of other drugs that have been traditionally deemed more dangerous.

“In general, the size of the problem having to do with alcohol vastly overshadows all the other drugs combined,” Goldman said.

Goldman travels the country lecturing about the report, the guidelines of which will soon become a point of reference for universities involved in alcohol-related lawsuits, he said. He recently returned from Tacoma, Wash., and will journey to North Carolina soon to discuss the study.

Every spring, Goldman teaches 15 students the three-credit course PSY 4931: Substance Abuse. The students are trained about aspects of alcohol abuse and get hands-on experience in his research facility located in the Psychology Building. He said the problem of substance abuse among students can be improved with programs that include both the campus and outlying communities, accompanied by research.

“We’re starting people off in life with handicaps that are connected with alcohol use. Why do that to the next generation of leaders?” he said.