Prior to joining EDC, John Clapp consulted for the U.S. Marine Corps and the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Services. He teaches social work research methods and alcohol and drug prevention at San Diego State University.
His passion for putting research into practice can be heard in his voice.
It’s an interesting field, scientifically, and it’s important, given the public health impact,” he says. “Students are the future of our country, of our world, and the amount of potential talent that gets wasted due to alcohol and drugs every year is needless.”
While student alcohol abuse isn’t new, tackling it as a public health issue is fairly recent.
“We didn’t start looking at drinking on campus until the 1950s,” says Clapp. “Then, in the 1990s, Harvard started a college alcohol study that gave us good, national data on the extent of heavy drinking among college students. That was when we really started tracking the problem systematically and figuring things out.”
The field continues to evolve. Scare tactics used since the 1980s are no longer considered effective.
There’s no evidence that bringing a crashed car or beer goggles to campus, or holding a Red Ribbon week [where students abstain from alcohol] works. Given schools have limited resources, it makes sense to look at these practices and replace them with strategies that work.”
Alcohol abuse on college and university campuses is often not understood to be a public health and safety problem. John Clapp of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Violence Prevention at EDC discusses how colleges and universities can offer prevention programs, even as many struggle with slashed program budgets.
What’s the biggest misconception about college students and alcohol?
Parents and other people in the community may think it’s harmless. They think, “This is just something kids do.” “It’s a rite of passage.” “I drank like a fish in college, and I got through it.” There’s good evidence that shows significant risks for academic, social, health, and legal problems that occur with sustained heavy drinking. It’s complex behavior. As a group, students are the heaviest-drinking demographic in society.
What’s interesting is that when most students leave college, the bulk of them stop drinking as heavily as they did, which suggests that the college environment encourages heavy drinking. That’s one of the reasons the Higher Ed Center focuses on environmental approaches.
What types of prevention efforts are most effective?
Colleges really need a sustained, comprehensive approach to handle these types of problems. They need to reach across the whole campus community—campus security, academic affairs, student affairs, counseling, psychological services, health services, athletics—and then work with the greater community, especially for schools in urban settings where students don’t stay on campus.
It’s got to be a broad-based approach that targets students who show clinical signs of addiction while also addressing the environmental factors such as zoning and liquor licenses, and public policy issues around noise and trash. The more that colleges and universities can do that in a systematic and coordinated way that addresses their campus drinking patterns within their own environment, the more successful they’ll be.
How is the economy affecting campus prevention efforts?
It’s unfortunate. Now that we have good science to guide us and we know what works, increasingly, campuses have fewer resources to commit to this problem. Universities are struggling to meet their academic mission. They’re having problems keeping the lights turned on and professors in the classrooms. And they’re trying to address an alcohol problem.
How does EDC help colleges with limited resources?
The most important thing is to be systematic and strategic. With limited resources, focus on a single important problem. The Higher Ed Center has a strategic planning process that helps colleges prioritize their problems and identify solutions. We offer them technical assistance and tools to learn these skills and maximize their resources. It doesn’t have to be super expensive or time-consuming to be effective.
What are some examples of targeting specific alcohol-related problems?
Let’s say a campus had problems with the Greek system—loud parties, heavy drinking, hazing. We’d work with them to look at the policies that regulate the Greek system and then suggest alternative activities to reduce the unwanted behavior. Or say a student had a tragic drunk-driving accident. We might work with them to set up a safe rides program and to train bartenders to cut down on the level of drinking.
We don’t hear as much about student drunk-driving accidents.
Drunk driving is the single biggest cause of college student deaths in the country: 1,700 to 1,800 college students die every year, and 80 percent of those are due to drunk driving—college students leaving campus for a club or party. That’s an emerging trend that needs to be addressed in the coming years.
The Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Violence Prevention is managed by EDC and funded by the U.S. Department of Education.
Originally published on May 2, 2011