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A sober lesson that seems to stick

Battling binge drinking, colleges try program that grabs students with facts

By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / August 13, 2011

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A question that has vexed college administrators since John Belushi shambled on screen in “Animal House’’ - what to do about heavy drinking by students - may have a new answer.

A study of 30 campuses nationwide found that an online educational course that showed students in attention-grabbing detail the consequences of excessive drinking had significantly reduced common alcohol-related problems among freshmen, including binge drinking and sexual assault.

The results, published in July in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, also showed that students who completed the program were less likely to get into arguments or trouble with authorities, said lead author M.J. Paschall of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, a nonprofit not affiliated with the program, called AlcoholEdu.

The program thrusts students into real-life quandaries, for example, asking them what they would do if a friend went wild after drinking too much and calculating their blood alcohol levels after going on a hypothetical bender.

Although the effects of the program faded after a semester, Paschall said the results of the study, which included six schools from the Northeast, were still very promising.

Colleges have spent decades trying, and often failing, to persuade students to drink less. Nationally, alcohol-related student deaths increased from 1,440 in 1998 to 1,825 in 2005. In 2001, an estimated 599,000 full-time students at four-year universities were injured in alcohol-related incidents, and 97,000 were victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or rape.

Although many interventions have been tried, few have been rigorously studied in large, randomized trials. Those that have proven successful, including personalized counseling and alliances between schools and local police and bars, are so resource-intensive that financially strapped schools may be reluctant to use them.

AlcoholEdu is comparatively simple. It combines old-fashioned surveys about drinking habits with high-tech features such as streaming video, tailored feedback, scientific and legal facts, and quizzes. Although it takes three hours to complete, students can pause and return later if they become bored, and many take the course at home before arriving on campus as freshmen. At least a quarter of schools nationwide use the program, including Harvard University, Boston College, and six other local schools. But those institutions adopted it before it was fully tested.

The new study is the first to indicate, with rigor across many campuses, that the program can reduce alcohol abuse, a key selling point for administrators concerned with ensuring that their efforts are evidence-based.

“Colleges can’t just throw money at this issue anymore,’’ said Patrick Rombalski, student affairs vice president at BC. “Our sense is that this program really does work for us.’’

The program is not a panacea. The new study indicated that the program failed to decrease aggression, academic problems, or episodes of driving under the influence. It was also less effective on campuses that did not mandate it for all new students.

“Alcohol abuse is such a complex, entrenched issue in American colleges that no single thing can be expected to solve it,’’ said Henry Wechsler, retired professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and leading expert on student drinking. “Each program may contribute a little, but none of them by any means can be viewed as solving the problem.’’

Wechsler said he was “a bit puzzled by [AlcoholEdu’s] success, given that the simple transmittal of information usually does not change behavior.’’

Fans and critics alike stressed that the program should be part of a wider effort.

“Educational programs like this send a great message,’’ said Sally Linowski, a nationally known substance-abuse researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “But that message gets blown away if kids come to school and see signs on all the liquor stores saying, ‘Welcome back, students: 30-pack of Bud for 10 bucks.’ ’’

Linowski said more comprehensive strategies would be necessary to make a serious dent in drinking. UMass Amherst, for instance, uses a web-based program similar to AlcoholEdu, but funnels students through a form of one-on-one behavioral counseling known as BASICS, a technique with 20-plus years of research behind it, said Linowski. And bar owners, landlords, students, and staff have joined to combat illicit drinking.

“This is about coalition building,’’ Linowski said. “It’s not about purchasing a program, like, ‘We’ll just do this one thing.’ ’’

UMass Amherst attracted attention last year when an apparently intoxicated fraternity member was injured in a fall off a roof, but its rates of heavy drinking are down 20 percent since 2005, Linowski said.

Community-based strategies like UMass Amherst’s have also shown promise in randomized trials. For instance, Paschall and his coauthors, the team that conducted the new AlcoholEdu study, examined a host of combined interventions last year, including media campaigns, sting operations at local bars, and strict patrolling of student parties off campus.

Schools that put those policies in place saw significantly fewer incidents of intoxication at off-campus parties, bars, and restaurants, according to the study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

But administrators might be put off by such plans. “You’ve got local businesses that may feel threatened by some policies, like limiting happy hour specials,’’ Paschall said. “You’ve got alumni associations that may not support the policies. You’ve got university presidents who think the drinking age should be lowered to 18. None of that helps.’’

AlcoholEdu costs about $16,000 per campus. It tracks students’ progress as they complete each section.

That can translate into legal benefits. “I have three clients who avoided being sued after students died, because they had mandated this program,’’ said AlcoholEdu’s creator, Newton-based entrepreneur Brandon Busteed, who declined to identify the schools. “Is it a 100 percent lawsuit prevention tool? No. But if you’re a dean and you’re on the stand, you can prove that a particular kid completed this program, where you can’t prove that he was exposed to posters put up in the halls.’’

The new study constitutes a victory lap of sorts for Busteed, who has devoted his career to curbing student alcohol abuse.

As a Duke University freshman in 1995, Busteed tried to organize school-sanctioned social events free of alcohol, but “no one would show up because there was no alcohol there,’’ he said. “People told me: ‘Look, students are going to drink. There’s nothing you can do about that.’ ’’

As a senior, Busteed was named student representative to Duke’s board of trustees. That night, he had a celebratory Corona, his first drink. Then, he said, “I redoubled my efforts.’’ AlcoholEdu was the result.

Busteed plans to charge colleges more for the program in light of the new studies.

Wechsler, the Harvard public health expert, said alcohol abuse has high costs of its own. “If colleges figured out how much it was really costing them in lost learning opportunities, vandalism, dropout rates, they might be more motivated to do something,’’ he said.

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.