Collegiate drinking has been a common, albeit unhealthy, rite of passage for hundreds of years. In the 14th century, scholars say, there were some 60 taverns proximate to the University of Paris. Riots by drunken students routinely plagued administrators in the ancient university towns of Leipzig and Bologna, and undergraduate drinking at Oxford and Cambridge often led both tutors and townspeople to exasperation.
Little has changed, except perhaps for the scale of the problem. While only a relative handful of drunken scholars stumbled through medieval university towns, today millions of students imbibe, often to excess. While their drunken behavior typically causes only embarrassment for the inebriated and annoyance for others, fatal accidents, alcohol poisonings, and booze-fueled crimesalso occur, and have become depressingly common.
Happily, over the long term, the consequences for drinking students may be less dire than some have feared. A new study by MU's Wendy Slutske, published in the March 7 edition of the Archives of General Psychiatry, found that those who drink in college are statistically no more or less likely than their non-collegiate peers to become addicted to alcohol.
"This study would appear to provide a somewhat more encouraging message about the consequences of college drinking," says Slutske, an associate professor of psychological sciences. "Although college students suffer from some clinically significant consequences of their binge drinking, they do not appear to be at greater risk than their non-college-attending peers for the more pervasive syndrome of problems that is characteristic of alcohol dependence."
Her research utilized data from the 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. Slutske focused on data drawn from some 6,300 of the survey's 68,929 individuals, each of whom was 19 to 21 years old. Survey researchers asked the young respondents to identify the frequency and quantity of their drinking on a yearly, monthly, weekly and daily basis. Subjects were also asked to fess up about how much they engaged in "binge drinking," or consuming at least five drinks at a sitting.
Slutske's analysis of the data led her to conclude that young adults in college were, in fact, drinking more than these who were not obtaining the benefits of higher learning. Binge drinking was also more common among these students. None of this came as a shock to the nation's alcohol researchers.
What did attract notice was Slutske's finding that there was no significant difference between the collegiate and non-student groups in "prevalence of past-year alcohol dependence." This number came in at 6.1 percent for young adults in school and 6.6 percent for non-students.
"Alcoholism used to be thought of as a chronic condition, but that really is not true anymore," Slutske explained in an e-mail. "I'm not certain that there is an obvious implication of this study. It is just surprising to identify a group that drinks more than another group, but does not have higher rates of alcohol dependence -- usually these are pretty closely linked."