In 1854, a cholera epidemic sweeping Europe claimed more than 500 lives in London in just 10 days. With no cure in sight, Dr. John Snow walked through the city of London, documenting the address of each victim. He discovered that the outbreak was restricted to an area within 250 yards of the Broad Street water pump. With the data in hand, Snow convinced the city to shut down the pump, and the epidemic ended three days later.
The staff of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Other Drug, and Violence Prevention (HEC) believe that colleges can learn a lot about preventing high-risk drinking from Snow’s example. The power of Snow’s story, according to William DeJong, HEC’s director, is that people can improve their health by changing their environment. “For most Americans, the idea that you can change your environment is something of an epiphany,” says DeJong. “Instead, we tend to focus on the problem of weak individuals. But you need to think about a campus community as an environment that can be changed.”
HEC is working to move colleges away from a primarily educational approach to high-risk drinking and toward a broader, public health approach. HEC collaborates with college students, administrators, and faculty to help them re-examine and expand their responses to student drinking. In addition to serving as a clearinghouse and publisher of prevention resources, HEC provides training and technical assistance to individual campuses. Like Snow, HEC staff believe it’s critical to begin with research-in this case, a wide-ranging assessment of campus attitudes and behaviors related to binge drinking, as well as the environmental factors that may contribute to the problem. For example:
- Housing. Many institutions are focusing resources on preventing drinking in dormitories and on-campus fraternities and sororities, but they also need to consider off-campus housing and overall housing policies.
- Class schedules. At many universities, weekend partying starts Thursday afternoon and stretches through Sunday. Modifying class schedules can alter excessive drinking.
- Low expectations. A few years ago, the University of Maine conducted a study showing that students were spending about 10 hours per week in class and only another 15 hours per week studying. “That leaves students with a large amount of unrestricted time,” comments DeJong, “which contributes to the amount of partying and drinking on campus. When faculty don’t demand enough, students realize they don’t need to do a lot of studying to get a B+.” Higher academic expectations can make a difference.
- Surrounding community. “We’re getting colleges and communities working together in a re-examination of the kind of community they want to have,” says DeJong. “Who says we have to tolerate a bar one block from campus that runs low-priced promotions and targets its advertising to the college? Who says the college and community shouldn’t or can’t change that?”
Originally published on September 1, 2001