Study: Alcohol use in college students fell in spring 2020

A University of Nebraska report shows declines with students living at home, but what will happen when they all return in the fall?
By: | April 22, 2021
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A new study done by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln shows that alcohol use among college-age students in the state overall fell during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic from previous years.

Researchers noted that environment played a key role in the reduction of drinking. As many students returned home to live with parents or guardians, they lessened use significantly.

“We saw differences based on whether or not students moved related to the pandemic,” said Dr. Anna Jaffe, assistant professor of psychology at Nebraska who helped lead the study. “Those who did move decreased their drinking 49%, while those who did not move decreased their drinking by 21%, which is still quite substantial.”

Could the research dispel the notion that partying was rampant among students throughout the pandemic – that reported gatherings and during the most recent Spring Break at universities notorious for alcohol use – may have been outliers rather than regular occurrences? It seems to follow that students would drink less while living at home, and even in campus residences, where COVID-19 restrictions were in place.

More than 1,300 students ages 19-plus took part in the study, which was published in “Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research”, a journal from the Research Society on Alcoholism and the International Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism. Findings show a 28% reduction in “drinks per occasion” during the spring of 2020 compared with 2019 and 2018. Nebraska researchers already had been conducting research on alcohol use, so they were able to use some of the work blended with 2020 numbers to see patterns emerge.

Jaffe and her team noted that social environment – students living at home – likely played a part in those reductions during 2020 and could be a “protective factor” in further limiting alcohol use.

However, that won’t be an option for long … in a few months students will en masse head back to what likely will be fully-operational institutions this fall. How will they react then to having that extra dose of freedom? Will they party and gather and drink even more?

Strategies to limit alcohol consumption

In a normal year, the statistics around alcohol use on campuses are quite staggering. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism notes:

  • 25% of students report some academic impact because of drinking
  • Nearly 700,000 students per year have been victims of assault because of another student who has consumed alcohol
  • Nearly 100,000 have been the victims of sexual assault or date rape
  • More than 1,500 students 18-24 die from alcohol-related injuries
  • Approximately 9% have an alcohol abuse problem

Many college and university leaders have touted their return to more traditional campuses this fall. Institutions must be wary that the most “vulnerable time for heavy drinking and alcohol-related consequences” according to the NIAAA are the first six weeks of school for college freshmen. During this very different year fall opening, it will be imperative to keep that in mind, especially with COVID-19 still lingering.

So how can they protect themselves and their communities from increased alcohol use? The NIAAA offers several strategies that may be effective in mitigating alcohol abuse on campuses.

“Your best chance for creating a safer campus could come from a combination of individual- and environmental-level interventions that work together to maximize positive effects,” the NIAAA notes on its website.

There are a number of individual education, cognitive and feedback strategies for students that could be effective, according to the NIAAA:

  1. Email feedback. Personalized normative feedback allows students to input and see their own patterns of drinking against their peers and is typically displayed in graphic formats.
  2. Skills training: There are several options for students, including those at risk and those who have admitted high alcohol use, to receive training that helps them overcome the temptations to drink or drink excessively. Colleges and universities can help them perform their own assessments, such as daily diaries, to show how much alcohol they are consuming. They can also launch alcohol skill training programs that educate them on the perils of overuse and give them coping strategies.
  3. Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS): Colleges can do their own screenings for those that may be abusing alcohol. Those students self-assess their behaviors and drinking patterns, typically for a period of two weeks, before having a facilitator meet with them to discuss their patterns.
  4. Other options: AlcoholEdu for College and eCHECKUP TO GO are two feedback-based programs that colleges can launch to help students assess their use of alcohol.

Within its guidebook, the NIAAA identifies many campus and community-based initiatives that can be employed by colleges and universities to help prevent the overuse of alcohol. It highlights which strategies are not only most effective in reaching students but also those that are cost effective. They rate those strategies using a star system (1-3 or those unknowns with questions marks).

The most effective in reaching students include enforcing the 21-and-over drinking age, limiting happy hours and 2-for-1 drink promotions and ensuring deep discounts aren’t given for individual drinks or shots. Some less-effective ideas but still worth exploring include banning alcohol sales at games, eliminating alcohol sponsorships and curtailing hours and days that alcohol can be sold.