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Small Colleges aren't to Blame for Student Alcohol Abuse

In an opinion piece published in the New York Times entitled “Drinking to Blackout”, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill senior Ashton Katherine Carrick asserts that “small schools are especially conducive to blackout culture.” She describes the dangerous campus drinking climate at an unnamed “small liberal arts school in the middle of nowhere” where she attended for one year prior to transferring to UNC.

College student drinking is such a complex issue, and I fear the author of this op-ed has reduced this to a poorly researched thesis: small colleges cause binge/blackout drinking. 

By way of context, I spent 24 years as a residence life/student affairs professional, almost entirely at small colleges. My doctoral dissertation focuses on values among students at a small college. I taught a master's level seminar on student affairs work at small colleges. I attended a small college and sent my children to small colleges. I’m a proponent of small colleges, but I am not unaware of the horrors and realities of campus alcohol abuse.

First, the author makes a fundamental research error and confuses correlation with causation. Is there research that indicates that binge/blackout drinking is more prevalent on small college campuses? There might be, but she doesn't cite any of it. She just makes observations about her own experience and about the one small college campus she attended and subsequently left. (And let's not overlook our human propensity to justify our decisions by making what we rejected look not just bad, but terrible.)

Second, she doesn't look at other influences on binge/blackout drinking that might also be prevalent on some small college campuses. Things like Greek life, (And yes, I was Greek and have advised Greek chapters in my career) which has been linked in scholarly research to binge/blackout drinking. Maybe it's not the small college that is the influence; maybe it's the Greek system at THAT small college. What about small colleges without Greek systems? Or small colleges with healthier Greek systems?

She trots out the "there's nothing to do but drink here" excuse, which is common and overused. Student Affairs folks at her unnamed college had probably spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to provide alternative entertainment--the hypnotists, the scavenger hunts, the coffee houses, the dances, the concerts--only to find that few students attend because getting drunk is more "fun." Or more socially accepted. What else is a small college supposed to do? If the administration tries to crack down on abusive drinking, they are seen as the enemy, and that small, tuition-driven college might be looking at not making their incoming freshman class because the campus is perceived to be too strict.

 

The author then talks about the stress of getting into college, which has also been well documented. But she fails to mention that the clear majority of small colleges are not highly selective. In fact, the majority of colleges overall are not highly selective and admit a majority of the students who apply.

My last point is much more nuanced. We're living in a time when parents are desperate to protect and shelter their high school age children. Adolescents are not permitted to make many decisions about how they spend their days, nor given much unsupervised time. The parents who nudge their kids toward small colleges in small rural towns sometimes do that because they believe it will ensure that their kids will be safe. The colleges themselves promote that sense of community (and the author of the op-ed even throws that back in the college's face) and tell incoming students and families that they will continue to function as a safety net to freshmen. Many of these students are not equipped to make adult decisions because they've never been allowed to. And now they can't wait to TRY EVERYTHING and they don't have the skills to sort out the dangerous from the adventurous. 

The problem of binge and blackout drinking among college students is real and alarming, but to make the accusation that small colleges have a particular responsibility in encouraging it is simply naive and unfair.