11 Ways to Help Students Make Healthier Decisions Related to Alcohol

Many student affairs professionals understand the problem of high-risk alcohol consumption. 

But there’s also a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about alcohol in the field. It’s in student affairs professionals’ best interest to address high-risk alcohol use on campus. 

As a preventionist working daily to decrease this risk on my campus, here are my suggestions to help dissuade students from unhealthy and dangerous drinking behavior.  

11 Tips

1. Understand the harm

High-risk alcohol use can lead to motor vehicle accidents, sexual violence, physical violence, poor academic performance, and substance abuse or dependency. Students who drink under age 21 risk damage to their developing brains. While there is not enough data to show exactly how alcohol can harm developing brains, we know that it impacts memory and mental well-being.  

For preventionists who understand the reaches of this problem, student binge drinking is a nightmare. And, tragically, a student death is sometimes the only thing that gets other campus professionals to pay attention to high-risk drinking problems.

Students who use alcohol in high-risk ways face academic and personal consequences. Their use makes campus less welcoming to the healthy majority of students and non-white students

from the Alcohol Rehab Guide

If you conduct any surveys about student experiences, consider including questions about alcohol use so that you can better understand the healthy majority and alcohol use on your campus. 

The emotional cost of high-risk drinking cannot be quantified. Students have to support their friends after an incident, while administrators have to work overtime to support students and do damage control. 

Although the majority of students don’t use alcohol in high-risk ways, overdrinking is still a community-wide problem. The harm touches everyone on campus. Drunk students disrupt students’ sleep, staff members spend more time adjudicating conduct cases, and perpetrators have an easier environment to be violent within. 

Take the time to understand all the ways alcohol use harms your community members. My suggestions for beginners include reading Dying to Drink or checking out NASPA’s resources on alcohol and other drugs.  

2. Know what effective prevention means

Effective alcohol prevention looks at the issue from a public health lens. To understand this approach, look at the socio-ecological model. Preventionists are working on the issue from not only the intrapersonal level but from the institutions and community levels as well.

from “An Ecological Perspective on Health Promotion Programs”

Take action by spending a few minutes reflecting on how your office or institution could implement prevention within the socio-ecological model.  

At my institution, Marquette University, all incoming students go through online training before they arrive on campus. They’re also required to attend a Red Watch Band training, which is a bystander intervention program that educates participants on how to recognize acute intoxication and call for help. On an individual level, students who violate the alcohol policy meet with a conduct officer. And, if they’re at high-risk, they meet with a trained BASICS practitioner, too.

If we only see high-risk alcohol use as the individual’s problem, we don’t see all of the problems it means for our campuses. 

We don’t see the staffing hours used to hold conduct cases or to clean up physical messes. We don’t see the stress it causes our student employees nor how busy it keeps hospital staff every weekend. We also don’t see the money the institution loses related to alcohol use. 

Effective alcohol prevention programming is also an academic success issue. When students participate in high-risk drinking culture, it hurts the whole campus.

3. Don’t normalize high-risk alcohol use or perpetuate alcohol myths

Although it’s probably unintentional, staff and faculty often send the wrong messages to students about drinking. 

For example, when the law says that students are not allowed to drink until they are 21, but an RA tells them that “drinking is a part of campus life,” the mixed message makes their decisions about alcohol use more complex. 

Understand that not every student drinks every weekend. In fact, some students don’t drink at all. It’s not a right of passage to participate in high-risk drinking culture on campus. 

These myths confuse students. They perpetuate a drinking culture, which makes them less safe. Standardize the message on your campus to “Wait until you are 21 to drink. When you are 21, use alcohol only up to recommended limits.” 

If you have influence with student leaders, encourage them to communicate this message to their peers. RAs, peer educators, and student government leaders have especially powerful voices when it comes to shaping their peers’ behavior. 

Consider what other messages you send students. Never joke about alcohol. If students follow you on social media, for example, don’t post jokes about alcohol as stress relief or share a pic of yourself wearing an “It’s wine-o-clock” shirt.  

If you have purchasing power, don’t buy beer pints, plastic cups,  shot glasses, or other items for students or your office that could send mixed messages. And if you choose media that students will view, consider carefully if it normalizes high-risk drinking culture. 

If you are responsible for campus-wide messages to your students, standardize your institution’s alcohol message. As a prevention expert, my recommendation is to encourage students to wait to use alcohol — the longer the better. 

Drinking before age 21 impacts brain development, increases the risk for accidents and violence, and makes it harder for students to do well in their classes. Standardizing your institution’s message to “wait until 21” sends the message to students that alcohol use is not in their best interest and that there will be consequences for participating in high-risk drinking.

4. Understand the impacts on marginalized students

When institutions are permissive of high-risk alcohol use on campus, they make their campus less welcoming for students of marginalized identities

Women, students of color, and LGBTQIA+ students are all less likely to participate in high-risk drinking than other students. And, when students do participate in high-risk drinking, they are more likely to perpetuate microaggressions, harassment, and violence against students with these identities. 

Allowing high-risk alcohol use on campus fundamentally prevents you from including all students. We cannot be havens of social justice or academic excellence when high-risk alcohol use is prevalent. 

Survey students in order to learn about their alcohol use and perceptions of campus drinking culture. This data can help you adjust your prevention game plan. 

If you work in student conduct, keep track of what demographics are facing consequences for drinking most often. If it is mostly white cisgender men, consider what impact that behavior might have on the rest of the community. 

5. Pay attention to high-risk drinking days

Most campuses have high-risk days, such as homecoming or a big game day that is known for a lot of partying. 

Assist your prevention staff by finding out what dry events have been scheduled and volunteer to get involved. Staffing events can be a big help, as ensuring campus safety is often relegated to just a few people. If you supervise RAs or event leaders, make a game plan with them to ensure that every incident is documented and that student safety is prioritized. 

If you can’t volunteer for an event like this, ask your prevention staff about how you can help promote it. Students who choose not to drink deserve to have events on campus that are just as cool as how they perceive the popular, alcohol-filled parties to be. 

If you are a higher-level administrator, consider the days that are high risk. Are they doing more harm to the institution than good? If the answer is yes, consider if canceling the event could be in everyone’s best interests.

6. Attend trainings

When alcohol prevention trainings are made available to you, take them! 

If you have the chance to attend a training for BASICS, do so. If your prevention team hosts a professional development event with leaders on data around alcohol use, attend it. We love to see who our allies are around campus. 

In trainings like this, you will learn more about high-risk alcohol use and techniques for ending it. 

7. Work with academic affairs

If you have relationships with faculty, share information with them about alcohol use. 

You can also ask faculty to not joke about alcohol in class, to move due dates, and to intentionally schedule tests to encourage academic excellence, instead of allowing time for partying. For example, encourage faculty to schedule tests on Mondays instead of Thursdays or Fridays so that students spend the weekend preparing for exams instead of drinking. 

Faculty have the chance to impact students in ways that change their lives forever. By building relationships with faculty interested in prevention and wellness, you can help inform the messages they send to students. 

8. Take your prevention staff to lunch or coffee

To better understand your campus’ alcohol landscape, connect with your prevention team by inviting them out to lunch or coffee. Ask them about initiatives they are working on and what has been successful or unsuccessful in past prevention efforts. 

They will be stoked to tell you what programming is happening, what student data on alcohol use says about your campus, and what initiatives they could use your help with. 

9. Use data

While it’s hard for math haters like me to get behind data, it’s imperative for successful alcohol prevention. 

For one thing, student social norming data has shown to be effective in changing students’ behaviors around alcohol use.

Most students don’t use alcohol in dangerous ways, but most students assume that their peers are high- risk users. Because of this, they are more likely to engage in high-risk use — even if they don’t really want to. 

Use your data on the healthy majority to show students that most of their peers are choosing to refrain from using alcohol in a high-risk way, if at all. Then, they’ll feel more prepared to make safer choices. 

You can incorporate this data in posters across campus and in programs. For example, my coworkers and I  wrote a TEDTalk-style play and hired undergraduate student actors to perform it during new student orientation.

Connect with a data expert in your conduct system to create a heat map of where students are using alcohol on and around campus. If conduct cases keep occurring around the same locations, use that information to change those environments. Consider where students can buy alcohol near those locations.

Find out if a venue is selling to underage students, and consider if a more significant police presence at the location would reduce risk. (Though, as always, remember to consider how police presence could impact students with marginalized identities.)

Compile the costs that high-risk alcohol use has for your campus — including lawsuits, staffing hours for clean-up and conduct, and reduced tuition dollars due to lower retention. Students in iGen drink less than any group before them and seek academic excellence when selecting their college. If your school has a reputation as a party school, students might make another choice.

Once you compile these costs, you can show leadership the true financial damage of high-risk alcohol. Then, show them your affordable financial wish list for alcohol prevention. 

10. Hold Students Accountable

Students are less likely to engage in high-risk drinking when they care about the consequences. Consequences that students say curb their drinking behavior include facing law enforcement and university conduct, parent and family notifications when policies are broken, and probation that is clearly defined. 

If students aren’t properly held accountable for their behaviors, it sends a mixed message about your expectations. 

11. Maintain alcohol-free spaces for recovering students and non-drinkers

While our cultural narrative tells us otherwise, there are students on your campus who don’t drink. In fact, fewer students than ever are coming into college with previous drinking experience. These students may abstain for several reasons, including recovery efforts, religious beliefs, health concerns, or social values. No matter the reason, they should have plenty of opportunities to participate in campus life without drinking. 

If your campus has a recovery space, support it and introduce students to it. 

Finally, help maintain any existing non-drinking spaces on campus. However, don’t sanction students to participate in alcohol-free spaces as a conduct ruling. It can make these spaces feel less safe for non-drinkers who’ve maybe sought it as a respite from alcohol. Know the importance of a sober community for students who choose not to drink. 

While the issue of high-risk drinking on campus can seem insurmountable, student affairs professionals can take action to make their campuses safer. When we focus on the community-wide effects that high-risk alcohol use has on campus, we must move forward in supporting prevention. 

How have you helped encourage alcohol prevention on campus? What questions do you still have? Continue the conversation with us @themoderncampus.

Kacie Otto

About the author: Kacie Otto (she/her) is the Violence Prevention Specialist and Victim Advocate at Marquette University. If she’s not knitting or reading a book about feminism, you might find her at a campsite or in a thrift shop. Learn how we can help get your students involved.