UW-Madison shows progress on student drinking

Aug. 22, 2005

by John Lucas

Despite the Princeton Review's label of UW-Madison as one of the nation's top "party schools," university officials say they are making progress with aggressive efforts to control high-risk drinking among students.

"High-risk drinking continues to be a top health issue on college campuses across the country," says UW-Madison Chancellor John D. Wiley. "Junk science that results in a day of national media coverage does not do this issue justice. At Wisconsin, we will continue our multi-faceted approach to the problem."

One UW-Madison project, known locally as PACE (Policy, Alternatives, Community and Education), seeks to change the overall environment around campus drinking by strengthening alcohol policies on campus and in the City of Madison.

"Our work is having a measurable, positive impact," says Susan Crowley, director of PACE. "We care about this issue every week of the year, not just the week Princeton Review parachutes into the news to try to sell books. We hope that people don't believe their hype."

Since its inception in the late 1990s, PACE has advocated the idea that high-risk drinking leads to serious consequences, including violence, vandalism and sexual assaults. The problem also costs the city and university more than $1 million each year in policing costs and cleanup expenses.

PACE is part of the "Matter of Degree" program sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the American Medical Association and the Harvard School of Public Health.

PACE has more accurate scientific data than the 2,200 anecdotal surveys conducted by Princeton Review, says Crowley. University research shows that the approach is effective, despite Wisconsin's entrenched culture as one of the heaviest-drinking states in the nation.

Among the PACE statistics, culled from the College Alcohol Study:

  • The binge drinking rate, defined as having binged at least one time within a two-week period, dropped from 67 percent in 1999 to 59 percent in 2004. Also, the number of students who reported that they usually binge when they drink has declined from 54 percent to 47 percent.
  • The percentage of underage students reporting that it was "very easy" to obtain alcohol dropped from 59 percent in 1997 to 45 percent in 2004.
  • Between 1997 and 2004, there was a 14 percent increase (from 40 percent to 54 percent) in students reporting that they were provided with information regarding UW-Madison's rules for drinking; and a 23 percent increase (from 43 percent to 66 percent) in students reporting that they were warned of the dangers of an alcohol overdose.

Other PACE data points to lower admissions to local detoxification centers and University Housing surveys show that greater numbers of freshmen students are not drinking.

As part of the university's efforts to involve parents, Chancellor Wiley recently sent a letter to incoming freshmen parents, asking them to discuss alcohol issues with their son or daughter before coming to campus at the end of August.

Based on national research, PACE advocates for the City of Madison to adopt a comprehensive alcohol strategy to curb problems with high-risk drinking. Suggestions include:

  • Eliminating late-night drink specials.
  • Conducting more rigorous ID checks when selling alcohol.
  • Requiring responsible alcohol beverage service training for bar owners and servers to prevent over-serving.
  • Providing affordable, viable, non-alcoholic entertainment options.

Crowley says she is encouraged that the city recently hired its first alcohol policy coordinator in a continued effort to develop a coordinated set of rules for bars and taverns.

In addition, PACE distributes a student-produced guide to throwing a safe house party. Among the tips are keeping parties small and under control, not selling cups and taking extra care around balconies.