University Park

Penn State survey gauges student drinking behavior at University Park

University Park, Pa. — In a recent annual survey of Penn State students, three-quarters describe themselves as "light" or "moderate" drinkers and 64 percent reported trying alcohol before they turned 18.

Because high-risk and underage drinking affect the health and safety as well as academic and social development of college students, Penn State every year since 1993 has looked at the level of alcohol consumption among its students. This year, a random sample of 6,000 students 18 years of age or older attending the University Park campus was selected for the study.

Through this annual assessment -- administered by Penn State Student Affairs as part of a regular series of Penn State Pulse surveys to gather feedback on student issues, expectations, usage and satisfaction -- researchers also found that while drinking rates from year to year do not vary much, women are now engaging more in what is considered "high-risk" drinking behavior.

“I was surprised to see the new percentage of men and women who engage in high-risk drinking,” said, Linda LaSalle, associate director of educational services for University Health Services. “There seems to be a decrease in the high-risk drinking rate for men and an increase for women, which is a departure from previous years. This seems to indicate that more of our female students are engaging in fairly dangerous levels of drinking.”

High-risk drinking is defined as having four or more drinks in a two-hour period for women, and five or more drinks in a two-hour period for men, at least once in the previous two weeks. In 2010, 52 percent of female students reported participating in high-risk drinking, compared with 48 percent in 2009 and 46.4 percent in 2008. The percentage of male students that engaged in high-risk drinking was 54 percent in 2010, compared to 60 percent in 2009 and 59 percent in 2008.

Overall, more than half (52.9 percent) of respondents reported engaging in high-risk drinking behavior; almost 25 percent were classified as frequent high-risk drinkers. White students, off-campus residents and students of legal drinking age were significantly more likely to participate in high-risk drinking behavior.

Nearly 27 percent of the students who responded to the survey revealed that they got drunk seven or more days during a typical month in the academic school year. Twenty-five percent said they don’t drink or didn’t get drunk.

Penn State’s high-risk drinking rates are not unique. LaSalle said that Big Ten universities have similar drinking rates, and researchers in this field say that self-reported drinking rates are relatively accurate and have not varied much throughout the years since the survey began 16 years ago.

“Drinking is part of the undergraduate culture for many students, and culture is something that is notoriously difficult and slow to change,” said Betty Harper, director of Student Affairs Research and Assessment. "Because the survey has been significantly revised over time, most recently in 2008, trends over time can be difficult to tease out. The University is making a variety of efforts to educate students about high-risk drinking, and I would anticipate that eventually these will begin to have a measurable effect.”

Penn State is continually focused on efforts to create a wide range of programs and initiatives to educate students and their parents on the consequences of high-risk drinking. LaSalle said the University's Office of Health Promotions and Wellness teaches its program participants that one drink per hour or less is the rate at which a person’s body can absorb alcohol.

“The data reports that Friday and Saturday nights are still high drinking nights, but students aren’t increasing the amount they drink on other nights of the week,” LaSalle said, noting that the percentage of student drinking reported on Wednesday and Thursday nights has declined since 2008.

For more information on Penn State’s efforts to stem dangerous drinking behavior, click here.

Last Updated June 22, 2010