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Globe Editorial

Colleges take sensible steps to combat binge-drinking

September 5, 2011

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COLLEGE STUDENTS are returning to their campuses - and with them come plaintive appeals and policy pronouncements from college presidents and elected officials troubled by the persistent problem of binge drinking. This year, however, their pleas for self-restraint are accompanied by some sensible actions that should at least make a dent in alcohol-related deaths and injuries.

Princeton University is the latest institution to ban freshmen from joining fraternities and sororities after an internal report said the groups encourage alcohol abuse. Following an alcohol-related death on campus earlier this year, Cornell University cracked down on fraternity pledging rituals - raising the question of why the university didn’t realize years ago that pledging is often only hazing in disguise. Boston officials, meanwhile, are targeting bars and liquor stores that sell alcohol to underage students.

Forty or 50 years ago, college officials saw their role as acting in parents’ stead. But with 18-year-olds eligible for the military draft and the vote - and many starting families of their own - colleges chose to abandon their in loco parentis role, leaving students to make their own mistakes - often repeatedly.

The balance between freedom and self-restraint on campus remains elusive. If pressed, most parents and college officials would admit that many 18- and 19-year-olds aren’t ready for the unbridled freedom of a fraternity or other unsupervised living arrangements. Minimally, bans on freshmen in fraternities should help to reduce sexual assaults and alcohol-related injuries on campus. One good measure of a college’s commitment to addressing the problem is whether it provides sufficient on-campus, supervised housing for all freshmen and sophomores. And colleges that strive to house all of their undergraduates on campus are the smartest of all.

College years should serve as a passage to responsible adulthood, as well as a career. And for many, they do. But studies from the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism show how dangerous the yearly passage for college students can be: 1,825 alcohol-related deaths (largely car crashes); 599,000 alcohol-related injuries; and 97,000 alcohol-related sexual assaults.

Some researchers argue with the methodologies of those studies. But any serious observer will see that binge drinking and college is a dangerous and sometimes deadly mix. It isn’t coddling to impose some restrictions on underage students to combat a serious, demonstrable, and illegal problem. It’s common sense.