Forget pledging to a fraternity or attending the first home football game.
There's an increasingly popular rite of passage for college freshmen: Getting falling-down drunk.
Binge drinking has emerged as one of the unhealthiest aspects of college life, with freshmen of both sexes and students who live in fraternities and sororities most likely to spend at least one night a week drinking to get drunk, health experts say. This phenomenon has always been around, but never have so many students--particularly women--reported bingeing.
But now, on the heels of a disturbing report from Columbia University, colleges across the land are taking steps to address the problem.
Ranging from peer counseling to health fairs to private counseling, campus officials are alerting students to the risks of binge drinking.
Moreover, some campuses are tightening policies regarding alcohol use at campus events.
"The years between 19 and 24 are a window of high risk. It's a dangerous time. But we have found that we can assist young adults through this risk period," says Alan Marlatt, director of Columbia University's Addictive Behaviors Research Center.
Binge drinking, usually defined as consuming five or more drinks at one sitting, has been a growing concern on colleges for several years. But the report from Columbia portrayed the phenomenon as severe and widespread.
* One in three students can be described as an alcohol abuser.
* The number of women who deliberately binged rose from 10% in 1977 to 35% last year.
* Bingeing causes serious problems such as violence, vandalism and school failure. According to the report, 90% of campus rapes involve drinking by the assailant, and 60% of women who contract sexually transmitted diseases are under the influence during intercourse. (It's the risk of these repercussions that students often ignore when they set out for what they think will be a harmless night of partying.)
In a study at the University of Washington--which operates one of the most sophisticated binge-drinking prevention programs in the nation as part of a federally funded study--students admitted that bingeing led to negative consequences. Forty percent reported getting into fights after bingeing and 30% said they blacked out.
"But if you ask them whether they are problem drinkers, only 16% of the students say they are," Marlatt says.
Are the students right? Is binge drinking merely a social activity or are these students alcohol abusers--or worse--alcoholics?
To address binge drinking, health officials have had to come up with an answer to that question, Marlatt says.
According to his research, the vast majority of students who binge do not fit the definition of alcoholism, which includes a gradual tolerance to the substance, drinking larger amounts over a long period of time, spending great amounts of time plotting how to obtain the substance and withdrawal symptoms.
"But they do seem to fit the other category of 'alcohol abuse,' " Marlatt says. "That is defined as the recurrent use in situations that are hazardous."
Moreover, binge drinking in college does seem to have a social element attached to it, he notes. His study found that incoming freshmen--known for their partying ways--drink the most and that alcohol use declines over the four years of college.
Men and women living in the Greek system tend to binge more, followed by students living in dormitories and, lastly, students who commute to college.
"Most college students drink less as they get older, and there is a maturing out when it comes to problem drinking," Marlatt says. "After age 25 people are not as influenced by peer pressure and they seem to know their drinking limits."
But getting younger students--who are usually under the legal age limit--to avoid alcohol abuse is more difficult.
In the Columbia report, experts advocated a campuswide effort to deglamorize alcohol, including banning liquor and beer ads on campus and strict regulation of drinking at campus events.
Marlatt has taken a more voluntary approach. In his study, incoming freshman answer a questionnaire designed to identify potential alcohol abusers, usually those students who binged in high school.
These students are asked to enroll in the study, in which half receive a private counseling session about the risks associated with binge drinking. These students also receive a feedback sheet that shows them how much they are drinking and offers non-judgmental advice.
In the study, the students who received the counseling had a 28% decline in alcohol consumption compared to a 14% drop among the students without the counseling.
The students in the counseled group also reported taking fewer risks while drinking.
"We did get a significant difference in the number of times a person said they had sex while intoxicated," Marlatt says.
While most colleges don't have the resources to privately counsel hundreds of freshmen, most are addressing binge drinking in other ways.