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The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), which has a long track record of battling high-risk drinking among students, is trying new tactics, including web-based programming and an initiative to engage parents of incoming students

“High-risk drinking among students, including underage drinking, is difficult to combat because it’s part of the college narrative,” says Linda Major, Assistant to the Vice Chancellor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who has led the university’s anti-high-risk drinking initiatives for many years. “It’s part of the expectation that young adults have, that they absorb in many ways including stories from adults they know, the media and movies. It all adds up to a picture of what they think college is supposed to be like.”

Positive and Negative Trends in College Drinking

The trends in college drinking are both positive and concerning, she says. “On the positive side, we’re seeing a growing number of first-year students who come to campus having already decided to abstain from alcohol, or to drink relatively little,” she observes. In 1997, a survey of incoming freshmen found that 15 percent said they had abstained from alcohol in the last 30 days. “Now it’s more than 45 percent,” she says. “An overwhelming number of students also say it’s wrong to drive while impaired. The challenge is to create an environment that supports their decision not to drink, or create programs that prevent significant drinking once they get here.”

A trend that concerns Major is the growing number of female students who are drinking. “It used to be that men drank much more than women, but we’re seeing an equalizing of drinking between genders,” she notes.

Engaging Parents

UNL will be testing a pilot project this year based on research by Dr. Rob Turrisi at Pennsylvania State University. His research shows that although many parents think that once their children are in their late teens, they can no longer influence their behavior; sustained parental efforts can help reduce high-risk drinking, and prevent harm in the transitional period between high school and college and into the first year of college.

The UNL pilot involves parents of half of the incoming freshman class. These parents will use a web-based program that will guide them in having conversations about the dangers of high-risk drinking with their children before they go to college. “We give them tips on making the transition from communicating with an adolescent to communicating with a young adult,” Major says. The university will then study students’ drinking to see whether those whose parents were involved in the pilot drink less.

The parent program follows another UNL pilot project that asks incoming first-year students to complete an online alcohol education program designed to assess students’ attitudes about and use of alcohol, while giving them information about their peers’ norms. The students complete the program before coming to campus for the fall semester. Follow-up surveys during the year help assess the program’s effectiveness.

The program is designed to show students that their perceptions about drinking in college do not match reality. The program educates students about alcohol, its effects and campus/community laws, policies and consequences to provide accurate information for students to make better decisions. It also gives them tips on how to assist or react to drinking behaviors among their peers.

Collaborating with Other Colleges

UNL’s anti-high-risk drinking initiative, known as NU Directions, involves collaboration with other colleges in the community. The coalition has instituted programs including the “We Agree” campaign, which promotes awareness of the liabilities of neighborhood house parties, and campaigns to promote alternatives to high-risk drinking and to dispel the perception that everyone is drinking.

This year, the collaborative worked with Lincoln’s City Council to pass a law requiring a mandatory server education program for people working in the hospitality industry. “Servers are a key point of contact, because they can decide whether to serve someone alcohol who appears to have had too much to drink or suggest alternative transportation options if they intend to drive,” Major says.

Another initiative is called “My Turn to Drive,” intended for students 21 and older. Students who sign up for the program get a punch card, which they can get stamped at the end of the night by the bar staff if they are the designated driver that evening. Participants can turn in the card after getting it stamped five times and receive a prize.

UNL is part of the new Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking, a group of colleges and universities that will use comprehensive evaluation and measurement techniques to identify and implement the most effective ways to confront college drinking and lessen its harmful effects. The group is led by Jim Yong Kim, President of Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH.

“Being part of the Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking is a great opportunity to reinvigorate our own initiative,” Major says. “We will be talking with some of the brightest minds in the field.” She appreciates the group’s understanding that each university is different. “It takes into consideration the unique aspects of your culture, knowing what works in Hanover, New Hampshire may not work in Lincoln, Nebraska.”

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