UNT Health Science Center researcher links risky drinking to start of freshman college year


Published: August 11, 2011

Scott T. Walters, PhD, professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the UNT Health Science Center’s (UNTHSC) School of Public Health, Fort Worth, Texas, is co-author on a national study, recently published in Addictive Behaviors 36, 2011, 1008-1014, concluding that incoming college freshmen increase risky drinking immediately after the start of school, while progressively using fewer behaviors that might reduce the consequences of drinking.

The article, “Use and correlates of protective drinking behaviors during the transition to college: Analysis of a national sample” – co-authored with Norma Nguyen, Todd M. Wyatt and William DeJong – studied the drinking behavior of 76,882 incoming first-year students from 258 colleges across the U.S. in the three months just before and after the start of the school year.

The survey included questions about drinking, as well as protective behaviors that might minimize the consequences of drinking. The report notes that although heavy alcohol use has serious consequences, college students can reduce their risk for problems by using protective strategies to change the manner of drinking or avoiding drinking in high-risk situations.  Strategies include mixing drinks with less alcohol, alternating non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages, avoiding drinking games and using a designated driver. The survey also asked students about behaviors that were specifically intended to get the student drunk, such as starting drinking earlier in the evening or doing “shots” of alcohol.

“This was a particularly unique dataset,” Dr. Walters notes, “in that nearly every other survey of college drinking is conducted after school begins.  We know that students drink more in college than they do in high school, but we don’t know exactly when this increase occurs. Because students completed this survey in the weeks just before and after the start of school, it tells us exactly what happens to drinking after school starts.”

The study found that behaviors to limit drinking and avoid drinking and driving declined over the course of the data collection period, while students’ intent to get drunk and peak blood alcohol concentration levels increased immediately after the start of school.

“Toward the end of summer,” Dr. Walters says, “students become progressively less careful about their drinking.  This trend starts well before school begins. But certain kinds of risky behaviors, like doing shots or drinking before going out for the evening, only increase after school starts.”

In most areas, women were more likely to use protective behaviors than men. However, “intent to get drunk” scores did not vary by gender.  Women were equally likely to engage in these risky behaviors and showed similar increases after the start of school. Race/ethnicity and intent to join a fraternity or sorority had negligible effects on protective behavior scores.

With its conclusions that many first-year college students begin engaging in extreme drinking in the first few weeks after they begin classes, while simultaneously making less of use of protective behaviors to avoid alcohol impairment, the study reinforces the importance of focusing major prevention efforts during the first few weeks of college, including alcohol education programs, social norms marketing campaigns and visible law enforcement efforts.