Partying in college isn’t what it used to be.
For a growing number of Massachusetts college students, it’s an evening of board games, movies, and tacos in a dorm with no kegs in the basement, and no smoking pot out the window.
Substance-free housing is becoming a more popular choice for college students wanting to live away from social pressures and the temptations of alcohol and drugs.
Officials with the College of the Holy Cross, Tufts University, and Boston College report a recent uptick in interest from students looking for living environments without alcohol. The reasons range from personal or familial struggles with alcohol, a desire for a healthier lifestyle and deeper relationships to an increased awareness of the dangers of alcohol.
Several students interviewed for this story said substance-free halls, or houses, provide a calm space for community-building and authentic friendships, away from overserved peers stumbling back to the dorms. The growing trend echoes 2020 research that found the number of US college students who abstained from alcohol increased from 20 percent to 28 percent between 2002 and 2018.
“Some of my closest friends on campus are from this place,” Styx Parrett, a Tufts student from Kansas, said about their substance-free dorm.
While technically, just about all college dorms are supposed to be free of alcohol and drugs, they’re not. But students in these particular residences pledge to abstain from substance use while living there, and colleges officials and students said in interviews they abide by it.
“Physical and mental health is huge for students,” said Christina Alch, Tufts’ director of residential life and learning. “And this generation has a huge focus on their well-being. A lot of our students report wanting to be a part of a community where they know other students share their values and interests. While a lot of our students will find that through clubs and organizations, the substance-free housing also provides that within their home.”
Mindy Duggan, a graduate student at Boston University and recent Tufts graduate, said in an interview that she made the decision not to drink in high school for her own physical and mental well-being, and she was worried about being surrounded by a party culture in college. The fact Tufts offered substance-free living options on campus was a big selling point. She found community among like-minded peers and said some of her closest friendships were formed in Tufts’ substance-free residence.
“I just had an amazing time from the get-go,” Duggan said.
In a typical year, about 40 first-year students will express a desire to live in substance-free housing at Tufts, Alch said. Interest jumped this academic year to 108 first-year students wanting to live there, plus 17 upperclassmen.
One of Tufts’ substance-free buildings was recently renovated, a project supported financially by Tufts graduate and actor Hank Azaria, the voice behind many characters on “The Simpsons.” Azaria, who has personally struggled with alcohol abuse and is now sober, said in a recent interview with the Globe that he thinks it’s important for colleges to provide housing options for students who abstain from substances because so much of college campuses’ social scenes revolve around alcohol.
“I remember being on that campus and drunk as a skunk quite a lot,” Azaria said. “What it would have meant to me to have a place where I could have investigated that problem, and to know that there was another choice of how to live.”
The renovated dorm, aptly called Simpson House, now has an outdoor space with a patio, grill, and games, including cornhole, for students to gather and enjoy each other’s company. Azaria, coincidentally, lived in that same house during his sophomore year.
“I know what it meant to me to find my people in college,” Azaria said. “I was always in the theater. I was in the drama department, which became my family. And I noticed a similar thing happened to them. They just all live together over a common interest, and that created this bond.”
Azaria declined to disclose the value of his donation. He also donated four animation cels from “The Simpsons” — original handmade art of the characters before the animation process became digital — to the house.
An annual survey of incoming students at Holy Cross shows that more students every year are opting not to drink alcohol, prompting college administrators to offer substance-free housing last year for the first time.
Lily Nguyen, a fourth-year student at Holy Cross, was the resident adviser for the college’s substance-free dorm rooms last year and said everyone there had a blast. She remembers one particularly popular outing where students journeyed to the Natick Mall before enjoying Thai food back in the communal kitchen.
“I know the stereotype that media portrays [about] substance free — it’s like no fun and they’re the quieter ones in the group,” Nguyen. “I wanted to change that narrative where it is fun, and you can still hang out people who use substance. It’s just more so a lifestyle people have [that is] more laid back. Going back to the home that’s quiet and relaxing.”
Boston College officials said that they have also seen an increased interest in substance-free living over the years.
“We wonder if the increase is due to a shift in attitudes towards substance use, so the healthy living community is more appealing to students,” said Jeannine Kremer, the university’s director of the Center for Student Wellness.
Parrett, the third-year Tufts student from Kansas, said that addiction runs in their family, so it was important to find a community to “help make sure I wouldn’t have to worry about alcohol issues or drug issues,” as a college student.
“We don’t really go to parties or anything — it’s just us hanging out and just enjoying each other,” Parrett said. “Last year, there was a really fun taco night and there was a table just absolutely covered in taco stuff and it was so nice just to eat and hang out with friends. . . . We just sat on the floor for two hours eating, watching movies, and hanging out.”