Colorado State’s Student Health Center Receives Grant to Address the College Effect; Reduce Underage and High-Risk Drinking Among New Students

Colorado State University’s Department of Sociology and University Counseling Center’s Outreach and Prevention Services recently received a $260,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help reduce underage and high-risk drinking among first-year students.

The grant funds a two-year project that partners the Sociology Department and Outreach and Prevention Services with TEAM Fort Collins, a community-based substance abuse prevention coalition.

"The program will target first-year students, of which the majority live in residence halls, who may be experiencing the college-effect of misperceptions of the level of alcohol used by their peers," said Pam McCracken, director of Outreach and Prevention Services for the University Counseling Center. The program will include a research-based campaign to educate new students about the actual norm of alcohol use among their peers. In spring 2006, only 0.3 percent of Colorado State University students reported daily use of alcohol, but students in the same survey had the perception that 44 percent of the students on campus drank alcohol daily.

The campaign targets the ‘college effect,’ which is national research documenting a dramatic increase in the use of alcohol from pre-college students through their first semester in college. The campaign began during summer orientation for new students and their parents, and is highlighted through key events such as move-in day. While the first 12 weeks of the semester will be an intensive campaign, the effort will continue throughout the academic year.

A pilot project for the campaign has already led to success in providing new students with the "social norm" of alcohol use on campus. The pilot of the program, called "Balance: Your Life/Your Future," was put into place during the 2006-2007 academic year and targeted housing staff and resident hall assistants in one residence hall.

The campaign is based on the social norming model. A social norming campaign – an educational campaign strategy often used by health officials – strives to overcome misperceptions about what is normal. For example, research shows that a small number of college students actually binge drink, but the impression of many college students – particularly new students – is that a large majority of college students binge drink. A social norming campaign focuses on replacing these misperceptions with realistic knowledge about binge drinking. This negates a perceived sense that one must binge drink to conform or fit in among peers.

Materials will be developed for distribution to students that show the risks of alcohol abuse and information about actual norms regarding use on campus. In addition to print materials, the campaign will provide intensive training to staff in residence halls about addressing the social norm of binge drinking and alcohol use among young college students. Alcohol-free activities will be planned at residence halls as an alternative to private parties held by students.

Colorado State’s ongoing focus to address alcohol abuse has helped create programs that are heralded by experts and organizations as models to other universities across the nation and world.

This project is designed to meet a recommendation of the university’s Alcohol Task Force to implement a comprehensive social norms campaign to increase awareness of consequences associated with high-risk and illegal drinking as well as violations related to those actions.

In response to the alcohol-related problems Colorado State and other universities throughout the nation faced in the fall of 2004, the Colorado State University Alcohol Task Force was established. The task force was formed on the belief that the university, in partnership with the community, owes students and their families a careful examination of the social dynamics and misuse behind alcohol and its tragic impacts on lives and communities. The task force, led by then state Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, presented 43 recommendations in its final report to President Larry Edward Penley in February 2005. Actions on these recommendations continue to evolve.