Making a Reasonable Difference on Campus: Data Guides Us
Making a Reasonable Difference on Campus: Data Guides Us
- David Anderson, Ph.D.
Nearly 45 years ago, Dr. Angelo Gadaleto (who served as director of our campus counseling center) and I (serving as director of residence life) were interested in what college campuses across the country were doing to address alcohol problems and related issues. We wanted to know about the extent of alcohol problems on campus, and the nature of efforts undertaken by the wide range of 4-year colleges. With that context, we drafted a survey instrument and prepared a comprehensive methodology with a purposive sample of 330 schools. Three years later, we wondered how things had changed; we repeated our design with an updated survey instrument. That began our data collection pattern of a triennial survey with changes in the scope of attention (most notably, drugs) and updated topics and issues every 3 years. This data collection, from 1979 through 2021, provides rich insights about the nature and scope of campus efforts to address drug and alcohol misuse, whether through review of trends, understanding of current state of affairs, or identification of opportunities.
This data says a lot about college campus efforts to help reduce drug and alcohol misuse, and helps point the way for future meaningful strategies. Briefly, campuses increasingly acknowledge the need for comprehensive campus efforts and understand the complexity of efforts to address drug/alcohol issues. More policies are being enacted, data collection is more widespread, support services for those in recovery are increasing, and noteworthy changes in staffing and collaboration are found. Further, alcohol’s involvement with various campus behaviors, personal behaviors, and academic issues has reduced, albeit very modestly, over decades of effort. Nonetheless, numerous gaps remain; these include many schools lack server training, no change is found with the low attention to special needs of higher risk subpopulations, few are doing a survey on faculty engagement, and less than half have a formal assessment of the effectiveness of the campus effort. In addition, recent reductions of campus efforts are found, such as having a designated drug/alcohol prevention coordinator, conducting a student survey, or including drug/alcohol issues in orientation programs.
Here’s a quick synopsis of findings from the five major topical areas:
- Policies and Procedures. Whether alcohol is permitted or not (79% allow alcohol) hasn’t changed dramatically since 1979; what has changed are the circumstances under which it is allowed, such as requiring alternative beverages and food. One-half of campuses prohibit low-price or drink specials, and 61% allow alcohol in athletic venues (up from 35% 6 years ago). Over one-half have a policy about alcohol industry sponsorship, 89% have an amnesty policy (up from 51% 9 years ago), and 87% have a Good Samaritan policy.
- Prevention and Education. Awareness weeks or days peaked three decades ago, and now are at 64%. Most popular awareness offerings are alcohol-free events, bystander intervention, packaged internet-based approaches, tabling events, residence hall programs, workshops on drug/alcohol attitudes, and individual motivational interviewing. Orientation programs on drug/alcohol misuse are offered for new students (by 85%) and parents (by 60%). Assistance for faculty on drug and alcohol issues is relatively low.
- Support Services. Assistance for students with concerns about alcohol use is found primarily with counseling services and off-campus treatment services. Campuses offer group counseling for those with problems with alcohol (53%), marijuana (45%), and other drugs (42%). Support groups for those affected by those with alcohol problems are offered by 29% of respondents. Nearly one-third of referrals for screening by a health professional come from judicial conduct violations, and 21% come from self-referrals. Increasingly, campuses (46%) have organized drug/alcohol misuse recovery services.
- Evaluation and Data Collection. Student surveys on drinking (83%), other drugs (80%), and tobacco (77%) have all reduced over the past decade. Less than one-third of campuses receive reports from emergency rooms on drug/alcohol-related visits, and two in five campus health centers collect and report data from alcohol, marijuana, or illicit drug use and/or injury.
- Strategic Planning and Organization. Four out of five (82%) campuses have a designated alcohol/drug misuse educator or specialist; their responsibilities include education, counseling, assessment, and administrative areas comprising over two-thirds of their time. Campus prevention efforts show allocation on alcohol at less than one-third (29%), drugs (10%), tobacco (5%), wellness (30%), and violence (26%); noteworthy is that alcohol’s allocation was 66% in 1994. Peer groups and educators are used by less than two-thirds (62%) of campuses. Annual funding (excluding personnel) is nearly $25,000, about 41% of overall wellness funding. Fewer than one-half of campuses have a formalized strategic plan for addressing drug and alcohol misuse issues, and the use of designated resources (such as the CAS Professional Standards or NIAAA’s Alcohol Intervention Matrix) is modest.
This data helps paint the picture about the state of campus efforts to address drug and alcohol misuse. While areas of accomplishment do exist over many decades, several things are of significant concern.
- First, several areas show reductions of effort. To dismantle efforts, lose focus, or relax policies will likely have significantly harmful consequences on student success and the quality of campus life.
- Second, several areas show no change; although gaps were identified many years ago, no documented change in effort is found. Awareness of gaps did not translate to meaningful action.
- Third, several areas show significant omissions with campus efforts. More than half of campuses do not have a strategic plan, more than half are not following the federal requirement to conduct biennial reviews, and the use of professional standards or materials based in prevention science is very limited.
- Fourth, faculty members are an overlooked, and vitally important, resource. Their expertise can be tapped, they can become advocates, and their presence on the front line with students can be most helpful.
- Finally, based on the limited allocation of resources and planning efforts, it appears that campuses do not take seriously the importance of campus drug and alcohol misuse prevention. This issue requires prioritization and commitment to continue to make a difference.
The next steps are clear for anyone seeking to truly address campus drug and alcohol misuse and related problems.
- Know the reality of drug and alcohol issues on campus. Stay current with trends, usage, attitudes, knowledge, and perceptions.
- Acknowledge the important role that colleges and universities can and should play with understanding and addressing drug/alcohol misuse. These institutions of higher education are thought leaders, and can significantly shape new knowledge.
- Use existing quality resources, such as those found with SAMHSA, DEA, ED, and other national organizations and associations.
- Maintain the perspective that so many of these problems are preventable; also realize that prevention is working.
- Acknowledge that addressing drug and alcohol issues requires a comprehensive, science-based, locally-appropriate strategy.
- Realize that prevention work is complex, requires dedication, and demands perseverance; it is also very rewarding.
- Take the opportunity to provide bold leadership – envision a healthy and safe campus environment, and provide oversight and support to demonstrate the importance of addressing drug and alcohol issues.
As we look back to what Dr. Gadaleto and I initially sought to learn – what campuses are doing to address these issues – we have learned a lot. Addressing drug and alcohol misuse on our campuses is not only important, but also it is critical for the health and vibrancy of our institutions and our personnel. With all that campuses have done and learned, we know we can make a difference. We also know our efforts can be worthwhile. It’s an appropriate investment in the future of our students and the impact they will have. We can – and we must – do much more and do much better.
Dr. David Anderson is Professor Emeritus of Education and Human Development at George Mason University, where he worked for nearly three decades; there, he served as Professor and Director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Health. His career spanning five decades has addressed health promotion, drug and alcohol misuse prevention, and wellness issues, with primary attention to college campuses. He remains active with research, writing, consulting, and community leadership in Celebration, Florida. His research and resources are available at www.caph.gmu.edu, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.