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Party Schools: Choose a College or University by its Alcohol Policy

What’s the Number One Party School?  Most likely, it’s whatever college or university your student attends.

Sometimes my clients (or rather, the parents of my clients) beseech me to find a school for their student that is not a “party school.”  However, with few exceptions, nearly every school is a party school.  Young people between the ages of 18 and 22 are prone toward experimentation.  They take risks.  They push boundaries.  Intellectually and academically, of course, we want our kids to take risks and push boundaries:  this is how they grow and develop.  But with alcohol, we’d prefer to save kids from this propensity to explore.

Yet as parents, we must embrace the likelihood that the overwhelming majority of our kids will experiment with alcohol at some point—no matter which college or university they attend.

And lest parents get nervous that drinking on campus is somehow worse than it used to be, we should know that the Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that the incidence of  binge drinking on campus has remained fairly stable over time.

We cannot, therefore, control everything our child does when the go off to college. But we can select the institution where this experimentation will take place.

And different colleges have different approaches to alcohol consumption.  Which approach fits the student best?

I recently spent a day visiting two colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area of northern California.  Interestingly, both colleges made a point of communicating their institutional policies toward the consumption of alcohol.  And the two could not be more different in their approach.

One has an “open door” policy.  While this college pledges to uphold state law prohibiting underage drinking, the college also takes a practical approach–they rcognize that underage drinking is going to happen not matter what.  Therefore students are told that if they are going to consume alcohol in their residence halls, they must keep their doors open.  They are not to drink in private or in secret.  Therefore, peers can keep an eye not so much on consumption, but on the anti-social and sometimes dangerous behaviors that result from over-consumption.

Beer drinkingFurthermore, students are told that if any student becomes ill as a result of alcohol consumption, they are to take the student immediately to the Resident Advisors in the dorms, with a “no questions asked” policy: The emphasis is on the safety and welfare of the student, and not on prohibition and punishment.

A few hours later, I visited another campus, where the approach could not have been more different.  The campus is strict.  Very strict.  The College operates a small campus pub, where students aged 21 and over can drink alcohol. In fact, the college gives it away to students—with some restrictions (no more than one drink per hour, for example).  However, underage students who are caught drinking on campus are severely punished.  The first time students are caught, they are given a strong warning.  The second offense can result in expulsion, and the Provost of the college asserted that students have been thrown out of the college for underage drinking.

Yet the effect of this policy, as the provost admitted, has been to drive underage drinking off campus into student apartments near the college.  There, campus police have no jurisdiction, and the municipal authorities have little interest in catching students with a bottle of beer—unless those students’ behavior disturbs the peace. And some may argue (as have the members of the Amethyst Initiative), draconian alcohol policies that tolerate no underage drinking are actually contributing to antisocial and dangerous behaviors among their students.

So which sort of approach is best?  I certainly have my own views, but students and parents have to consider which kind of approach they think best.

It’s important to note, however, that just because a campus is “dry” (no alcohol of any sort is allowed on campus, even for students of legal age) as a matter of policy does not mean it is dry in actual fact.  I recently visited a buttoned-down Baptist university with a dry campus where the tour guide confided in me that his fraternity was on probation because of repeated violations of the alcohol policy (this campus, apparently has a strong policy that is weakly enforced).

The fact is that drugs and alcohol are readily available on nearly every campus in the United States.  Furthermore, the fact is that most students, at one point or another, will experiment with alcohol.  Students and parents need to discuss these facts during high school, and during the college selection process.

Mark Montgomery
College Consultant

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  1. i dont know i think every college has a house full of drunks that some kids will get dragged into. rules are never followed if they know they wont get caught.

  2. Hi, Jenny, and thanks for the comment. I think you’re right: rules must be enforced to be effective. Problem is that kids’ experience tells them that rules about underage drinking are very rarely enforced–or perhaps unenforceable altogether. Statistics also show that underage binge drinking remains very high–at historical highs–even though the law says this should not be happening. So the question boils down to this: should the rules be better enforced with more draconian measures and heavier punishments? Or are the rules inappropriate ways to teach kids about responsible alcohol use? This debate will no doubt continue…what are your thoughts?
    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Hi Mark. Do you think you could suggest some good colleges which have fun events and activities but at the same time have a no drinking policy or at least a low drinking rate? I’m in the process of choosing a college and I’m very confused. Thank you!

  4. Hi, Tracy. All colleges have “no drinking” policy for underage students. It’s the law. However, in most colleges, there will be a sizable majority of students who do drink–often to excess. Most of the schools where drinking is truly frowned upon are strongly religious in character (Brigham Young is usually the archetypal “dry” university). That said, I toured a relatively buttoned-down Baptist university in the South with very rigid rules against underage drinking…and as the tour guide passed his fraternity, he casually mentioned his house was on probation for drinking violations.
    In order to give you a solid list of schools, I’d need to know much more about you–including your religion. I’d also need to know more about the things you do like to do, and to perhaps discuss some ways in which to navigate the average campus on which drinking is a relatively big deal. I hope this helps a little bit: let me know if you’d like to get some more personalized advice in this vein. Best of luck!


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