Common issues and collaborative solutions: a comparison of student alcohol use behaviors at the community college and four-year institutional levels.
Article Type: Report
Subject: College students (Alcohol use)
Alcohol and youth (Risk factors)
Alcohol and youth (Demographic aspects)
Alcohol and youth (Comparative analysis)
Author: Blowers, Jerimy
Pub Date: 12/01/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education Publisher: American Alcohol & Drug Information Foundation Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Psychology and mental health; Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 American Alcohol & Drug Information Foundation ISSN: 0090-1482
Issue: Date: Dec, 2009 Source Volume: 53 Source Issue: 3
Product: Product Code: E197500 Students, College
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 218817578
Full Text: Abstract

The literature exploring commonalities between four-year and community college student alcohol use is relatively scarce. A possible reason for this discrepancy is the heavy focus on alcohol issues at university colleges. Coll (1999)presented one of the first brief assessments comparing community and four-year colleges on alcohol use and related consequences. The current investigation replicated this study and once again discovered strong similarities in alcohol behaviors between a community and four-year college residing in the same geographic area. These findings implicate a shared vision between academic institutions in meeting the challenges of substance abuse. The article concludes with expanded discussion of how these collaborations lead to a wider campus-community benefit and the need for colleges in taking a leadership role in achieving this goal.

Key Words: Community College, University, Alcohol, Social Norms


Heavy alcohol use at the college level is a prominent (O'Malley & Johnston, 2002) challenge confronting campuses and communities nationwide (Turrisi, Mallett, Mastroleo & Larimer, 2006). Consuming large quantities of alcohol with an ambition of becoming extremely intoxicated poses a serious threat to the user, one's environment and the community at large. O'Malley and Johnston (2002) suggest that imbibing in a pattern of binge drinking is shared by up to forty percent (40%) of college students across the nation. Research also suggests that students entering college arrive with pre-established drinking patterns (Grekin & Sher, 2006) that may be worsened by exaggerated campus misperceptions of collegiate drinking (Borsari, Murphy & Barnette, 2007).

A great deal of attention is directed at four-year institutions, especially concerning levels of student alcohol consumption. This intense scrutiny often overshadows the plight of community colleges dealing with the same challenges. "Although very few studies have specifically examined drinking patterns and alcohol-related problems among community college students, the existing data suggest that community college students exhibit many of the same problems" (Sheffield, Darkes, Del Boca & Goldman, 2005, p. 137). Coll (1999) performed a study actively comparing the drinking habits and consequences of community college and four-year students. Findings suggested that responses provided in the community college sample differed little from four-year colleges.

The current investigation follows Coll's (1999) design, substituting national findings with a four-year institution and a single community college located in the same geographic area. This localized comparison targeted the replication of Coll's (1999) finding that community colleges and state universities share common concerns related to student alcohol consumption. These similarities potentially offer a shared opportunity for future targeted interventions.



Both academic institutions used in this comparison are located in Northern New York State. Additionally, the colleges are located in close proximity, sharing the same mid-sized city resources. Participants in both samples were recruited as part of a larger social norms project. Specific to each campus, the program's overall goal was to provide more accurate perceptions about campus alcohol consumption. This involved the use of collected survey statistics, multimedia resources, and an understanding of each institution's unique cultural climate.

Community College Sample

The sample of community college students (N = 329) consisted of 41% females and 56% males. Approximately three (3%) percent of students did not report gender status. Most participants identified ethnicity as Non-Hispanic White (90.6%) followed by Non-Hispanic Black (4.7%), Other (2.2%), American Indian (.9%), Asian/Pacific Islander (.9%) and Hispanic (.6%). Ages ranged from eighteen (18) to fifty-seven (57) with a mean age of 21.84 (SD = 6.62). Ninety-two (92%) percent of students reported full-time enrollment.

Four-year Institution Sample

The four-year sample (N= 521) encompassed 29.6% males and 69.9% females; .6% did not identify gender. Similar to the Community College sample, most students self-identified as Non-Hispanic White (91.3%). Hispanic, Non-Hispanic Black and Other followed at 2.9% for each of the three categories. Asian/ Pacific Islander (1.3%) and American Indian (.4%) completed this ethnic demographic. Ages ranged from eighteen (18) to fifty-five (55) with a mean age of 21.59 (SD = 5.03). Ninety-nine (99%) of participating students reported full-time enrollment.


The Core Alcohol and Drug Survey served as the primary data collection instrument for both groups. The four-year institution data utilized the on-line college long form while the community college opted for the pencil and paper long form. Respective Internal Review Board (IRB) approval, assuring participant safety and confidentiality, was sought as part of a continuous intervention strategy taking place at both institutions. The community college assessment consisted of surveying students in a variety of social science courses; the four-year institution made the survey's on-line version available to all students. In both instances appropriate measures were followed to protect the confidentiality of participant responses.

The Core Alcohol and Drug Survey is a widely utilized and nationally recognized evaluation tool measuring behaviors associated with substance use (Presley, 1994). A separate form exists for four-year institutions and for community colleges. Questions analyzed in the current study remained identical on both forms, allowing for matching comparisons on each variable. The Core Institute's website provides interested researchers with samples of each form and a more in-depth instrument explanation (Southern Illinois University Carbondale, 2006).

The author collected respective data sets from each college and utilizing SPSS (version 16), conducted a series of frequency and descriptive comparisons. These performed contrasts followed Coll's (1999) original assessments on drinking volume and frequency. The current investigation also attempted a match between drinking consequence data from Coll's (1999) previous study and information captured in the current Core Alcohol and Drug Survey. The author also performed additional statistical evaluation using SPSS (version 16) and G*Power power analysis software (Erdfelder, Faul, & Buchner, 1996). These supplementary computations gave additional quantitative credibility to the side by side comparison of institutional findings.


Frequency and Quantity of Drinking

The utilized survey instrument provides an operational definition of an alcoholic drink (e.g., a bottle of beer, glass of wine, a wine cooler, a shot of liquor, or a mixed drink), which helps the student conceptualize and standardize beverage intake. Approximately 63% of community college and 73% of the four-year participants reported having at least one alcoholic drink or more in an average week. Data showed that in each sample, at least half of all students reported drinking three drinks or less in an average week (Community College = 58.8%; Four-year College = 50.9%). Many students chose not to consume alcohol (Community College = 37.5%; Four-year College = 27.2%) with a majority (over 50%) in both samples reporting the consumption of 4 alcoholic drinks or less during a typical week. Moderate and responsible drinking by most students, as in this case, does not raise the same concerns reflected in the phenomenon known as binge drinking.

Binge Drinking

The National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism (2004) defines binge drinking as "consuming 5 or more drinks (male) or 4 or more drinks (female) within 2 hours" (National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism, p. 2). The Core Alcohol and Drug Survey specifically asks about a participant's consumption of 5 or more alcoholic drinks in one sitting (during the past two weeks). Of four-year college students 56% met this criterion one or more times in the previous two weeks and 46% of community college students fit this designation. Consuming alcohol, particularly in greater volumes, certainly increases the potential for both interpersonal and academic consequences.

Drinking Consequences

Excessive alcohol consumption levies penalties not confined to the user. A study conducted by Wechsler, Davenport, Dowdall, Moeykens and Castillo (1994) demonstrated that binge drinkers experienced a myriad of personal risks and negative behaviors (e.g. Missing classes, self-injury, and unsafe sexual practices) as well as creating problems for other students. Fighting, property destruction, and interrupting others' sleep were not uncommon, especially in institutions with the most pronounced binge drinking rates. Further compounding the problem is a reluctance of students engaged in binge drinking to identify with the behavior. "When asked to classify themselves in terms of their drinking, less than 1% of the total sample (.2%), including only .06% of the frequent binge drinkers, designated themselves as problem drinkers" (p. 1676).

Information displayed in Table 1 designates behaviors reported by students in the current samples. Presented variables mirror those found in Coll's (1999) investigation in order to provide the most valid comparisons possible. Percentages correspond to the participants' acknowledgment of experiencing the event taking place at least once within the preceding year.

Statistical Analysis

A simple series of two-tailed t-tests evaluated whether scores on each variable differed statistically between four-year and community college participants. All variables returned nonsignificant results ranging from .14 to .79 with the exception of binge drinking and driving under the influence behaviors. Students attending the four-year institution engaged in binge drinking more frequently (M = 2.45, SD = 1.56) than community college students (M = 2.12, SD = 1.41); results were significant (p < .01) and accompanied by a small, but relatively powerful effect size (d = .21, power =.84). Regarding driving under the influence of alcohol, community college participants (M = 1.75, SD = 1.45) reported more of this behavior (p< .01, d =. 19, power = .78) than four-year counterparts (M = 1.47, SD = 1.19).

One important operational note is that both significant variables violated the assumption of normality as defined by Levine's Test for Equality of Variances included in SPSS output tools. Addressing this violation, the author examined the data distribution visually, transposed the variables into z-scores and recalculated the results. A final step, although redundant, was to calculate results using a nonparametric test (Mann-Whitney Test). Both cases, binge drinking (Z = -3.03, p =.002) and driving under the influence (Z = -3.43, p= .001) demonstrated significant differences between tested variables.

Aside from statistical significance, visual inspection provided additional and valuable information. The data's positive skew in each instance is caused by a majority of students reporting positive behaviors. Although 56% of the four-year college sample reported some level of binge drinking, this figure was calculated using the summation of individual categories. Students retained the choices of selecting the category best fitting personal binge drinking behavior. Options ranged on a scale (None, Once, Twice, 3-5 Times, 6-9 times and 10+ times), with many students (44%) reporting no binge drinking at all. Student behavior meeting the definition of binge drinking in this sample reported that this activity most frequently occurred 3-5 times in the previous two weeks (Figure 1).

A similar circumstance proved true for those community college participants choosing to drive under the influence; however, in this case, a clear majority (71.3%) never operated a motor vehicle while under the influence. The concerning rate of binge drinking in the Four-year sample and the encouraging abstinence in impaired driving in the community college sample provide impetus for change. Resisting the initial temptation to overestimate the shortcomings or effectiveness of one's prevention efforts, focusing on the reason students make positive choices, and strengthening their resolve, is the real cornerstone to future change.


Consistent with Coll's (1999) assessment almost a decade ago, community and four-year colleges' responses remain remarkably similar. Although it appears that driving under the influence of alcohol is more pronounced at the community college level, one must remember that the four-year institution featured in this study affords a greater proximity to campus activity. Students choosing to consume alcohol may do so in the dorm instead of driving. Four-year colleges may also offer easier access to bars through walking or public transportation. Commuting is an established way of life for community college students; therefore, it remains reasonable that students attending community colleges must travel a greater distance to obtain and consume alcohol as opposed to four-year students locating and consuming alcohol in greater proximity to campus. The geographic location of the community college in this study, although not isolated, was not in the center city and does not provide the on-campus living environment of traditional Baccalaureate institutions. Conversely, the four-year institution represented a virtual crossroads to the upper city and lower downtown areas.

Taken as a whole, the two educational entities demonstrated little descriptive variation in terms of self-reported behaviors. Alcohol appears as a significant issue for prevention, discussion, and intervention efforts, posing risk not only to the user (e.g., Binge drinking), but also for the community (e.g., driving under the influence) at large. Particularly in locales where community and university colleges share a common geographic location, collaborating on universal issues becomes increasingly viable.


Sample Size

True of any investigation, increasing sample size is always a desirable aim. Both samples in this venture constituted at least ten percent of the schools' populations. Ideally, interviewing entire student bodies would provide the most accurate and descriptive findings. However, where the ideal cannot be accomplished, utilizing the best figures available must suffice. Still, better strategies enlarging the geographic capacity for data collection, including randomized sampling, would create more powerful statistical outcomes and lend greater credibility to findings. Designing and implementing such an investigation is currently on the investigator's agenda as a future endeavor shedding more light on this subject matter.

Data Collection

The collection of data in this study reflected that of students motivated in completing the assessment. Another important consideration is the inclusion of a small token or prize for taking the survey. The community college used a voucher for the campus dining service whereas the four-year institution included a chance to obtain campus bookstore gift certificates. The decision to employ this self-selection methodology was based on the resource and time constraints in conducting the survey itself. Perhaps these incentives attracted a unique variant of the overall student population. A truly randomized sample may produce different outcomes as opposed to the self-selected method utilized in the current investigation.

Self-reported data is always a point of contention as it is possible that students may modify responses based on a variety of reasons. The four-year sample utilized an internet collection method whereas the community college sample was surveyed in various classrooms. The norm of electronic communication was not present on the community college campus, dictating use of the more traditional, written survey methodology. Both colleges, consistent with ethics review guidelines, took appropriate measures in protecting data confidentiality and the survey itself provides no method for linking individual students and selected responses. Del Boca and Darkes (2003) suggest that collecting truly valid data requires a consideration of both personal and environmental variables. These deliberations include instrumentation, structure of alcohol consumption items and perceived anonymity. The establishment of the Core Alcohol and Drug Survey as a valid evaluation tool (Presley, 1994) and the methodology used in preserving student privacy lends credibility to truthful responses. The fact that the authors used a response method (written and online paradigms) matching campus communication protocol is also an important consideration in students feeling comfortable in appropriately answering the survey questions.

Data Comparison

Comparisons offered through this contemporary inquiry, as with Coll's (1999) original strategy, worked exclusively with descriptive data. Individual juxtaposition of percentages or the simple comparison of means does not provide the same statistical impact contained in utilizing more complex methodologies (e.g. logistic regression or factor analysis), but does open the door for future questions and more advanced research designs. Confirmation that alcohol played a large role in student consequences is evidenced by the fact that on both campuses, alcohol was by far the drug most utilized among all substances. Almost 80% of the four-year sample (79.8%) reported using alcohol in the previous thirty-day period; approximately 70% (69.1%) of community college students acknowledged alcohol use during this same interval.

The Core Alcohol and Drug Survey does not differentiate alcohol from other substances on its question regarding use consequences (presented in Table 1). Acknowledging that the use of drugs such as marijuana, for example, also inhibits academic performance and levy respective consequences is a reasonable assumption; however, this does not nullify presented findings. Alcohol emerged as the most widely used substance in both samples. Previous thirty-day alcohol use (69.1%) remained almost double that of marijuana in the community college sample (34.8%) during the same period. The four-year sample provided similar self report with most participants reporting using alcohol at least once in the last thirty days (79.7%) while 27% affirmed using marijuana on at least one occasion during the same interval. Marijuana ranked third on all substances used within the previous thirty days for both samples; tobacco remained second. The preceding pattern is found nationally, with alcohol, tobacco and marijuana ranked in sequence among college students (Johnston, O'Malley, Bachman & Schulenberg, 2007, p. 236). The fact that both samples responded similarly to the identical Core Alcohol and Drug Survey question and results correspond with national statistics provides little justification for dismissing current data on the basis of survey item semantics.


Along with presented data in this brief exploration and with ongoing empirical inquiries (O'Malley & Johnston, 2002, Wechsler, Lee, Nelson & Kuo, 2002), elevated levels of alcohol consumption emerge as a consistent challenge for college campuses and communities. Binge drinking is especially noteworthy, both for the prevalence of this behavior (O'Malley & Johnston, 2002) and the consequences which are "clearly dangerous for the drinker and society" (National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism, p. 2). Faced with such an overwhelming problem, higher learning facilities may experience frustration at the seemingly insurmountable task of addressing collegiate drinking. Solutions for targeting alcohol concerns do exist and communities hosting a partnership between existing four-year and community colleges may hold a distinct advantage.

Shared Responsibility

The first step in the process is recognizing that problem drinking behaviors are universal problems. Encumbering student health, college integrity and community safety cannot be reduced to a single entity's responsibility; however, each institution must accept responsibility for its role in contributing to the whole. Today's students become tomorrow's community members. Seen from this perspective, the impetus in providing the best prevention, education, and treatment for alcohol-related issues is in everyone's best interest. No longer do colleges possess the luxury of separating student alcohol use from the institutions' duty to facilitate the development of responsible citizens and thinkers. This investigation's goal rests in providing the impetus for institutions to recognize common concerns and unite in finding shared solutions.

Shared Strategies

Achieving a successful, united front requires the use of valid intervention strategies and tools. Partnering in campus health promotion is more than a workable idea and is outlined in the American College Health Association's (ACHA) Standards of Practice, "advancing health at the environmental, population and individual levels" (Allen, Fabiano, Hong, Kennedy, Kenzig, Kodama, Swinford & Zimmer, 2007, p. 374). Educating students about alcohol as a powerful drug with potentially dangerous consequences is essential along with information about alcohol poisoning and general safety. Educators must be visible, available and open. The notion that college students are not receptive to receiving more drug-related information is simply not valid. A recent study found that college students do want more information "such as how different types of alcohol can affect a person and how alcohol affects alcohol over time" (Howard, Griffin, Boekeloo, Lake & Bellows, 2007). Education does work at the community college (Coll, 1998) and four-year levels. Research shows that the most effective strategies are those geared toward harm reduction (Howard et al., 2007) and "shift focus from simply drinking to reducing the harmful consequences of drinking that affect the drinker, significant others, and the community at large" (Ginter & Choate, 2007, p. 162). Sharing ideas, techniques and resources between institutions greatly enhances efforts. Developing comparable alcohol policies also fits into a well-rounded plan.

Along with collective education resources, colleges must discourage negative drinking patterns through efforts such as clearly enforced policies and efforts to change the campus environment through the correction of alcohol use misperceptions. Wechsler and colleagues (2002) found that, not only did a majority of students support interventions to control destructive alcohol use patterns, but these interventions demonstrated the effectiveness of alcohol policies, especially in discouraging underage consumption. One emerging tool currently used by both colleges in the current study is the employment of a social norming campaign correcting misperceptions about campus drinking. Statistics gathered about campus drinking are presented to student focus groups, who then formulate a slogan depicting alcohol consumption facts. This creates a personalized and student-driven effort challenging misperceptions about perceived rates of heavy alcohol consumption. A recent investigation conducted by Hagman, Clifford and Noel (2007) found "evidence that social norms-based interventions can contribute to more accurate perceptions, albeit self-reported, regarding peer alcohol use" (p. 297). Cooperating through exchanges of information, successes and set-backs helps each campus develop a unique message with the common theme of addressing alcohol use.

Addressing the preceding challenges to campus substance abuse is never achieved through mere rhetoric. Tangible success requires dynamic effort, commitment, adaptability and patience. The institutions highlighted in this study utilize an open dialog approach, sharing ideas, setbacks and intervention opportunities. During the implementation of respective social norms campaigns surrounding alcohol, both colleges recognized the need for exchanging information and resources. Each entity mindfully approached the process within its unique campus culture while simultaneously retaining focus on the fundamental alcohol issues.

The crossover was invaluable to success and modeled collaborative leadership to the students and community. Program media in the form of posters, cinema ads and various products reinforced this investment in prosocial behaviors. Students from each college took an interest in what the other institution was doing and recognized a clear overall message: Abusing alcohol is not normative behavior on campus. This memorandum is bolstered by the fact that the colleges play an instrumental role in a larger conglomerate, spreading the impact of programming beyond campus borders.

Shared Success

Members of a larger campus-community partnership, colleges also influence decisions and policies made in the surrounding city. Participants include students, fraternity and sorority representatives, academic leaders, law enforcement, clergy, business entrepreneurs, human service agencies, politicians and others. Pooling resources has produced a myriad of benefits founded on a multifaceted approach. Accomplishments include the securing of major grant funds, development of award winning prevention programming, increased community policing capacity and formulation of a campus-city Restorative Justice program. Remaining a part of this group certainly impacts alcohol prevention and intervention in far-reaching ways while seeing associated challenges through a diverse lens. Academic institutions desiring an impact on alcohol and other drug abuse benefit greatly from joining or creating these assemblies. Change is never accomplished by a single source and it remains clear that invoking a shared responsibility is a powerful means of meeting mutual challenges. Academic institutions certainly need to take an active, leadership role in fostering and hosting these important partnerships. Founding this partnership with seed money four years ago, the colleges' investments are yielding significant returns.

The goals of this investigation were two fold: (a) replication of Coll's(1999) study, examining if the similarities between community college and four-year institutions remained true concerning campus alcohol use challenges, and (b) briefly discussing how the collaboration between colleges surrounding alcohol abuse interventions potentially leads to comprehensive campus-community benefits. Presented statistics and reference to the intervention strategies respectively affirm similarities and offer a base model for effecting change. Recognizing the collective alcohol challenges between community colleges and four-year institutions exposes the facade of independence often preventing the initiation of reciprocal solutions. Coll's (1999) important research almost a decade ago prompts a restructuring of thought around how academics might employ new tools and strategies to campus-community problems. Scholarly institutes maintain the goal of progressively educating learners and the public on a diverse array of topics. The topic of alcohol and its impact follows this same trajectory; working together, all colleges have a tremendous potential impact on this significant problem.


The author expresses his deepest appreciation for the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse services (OASAS). Sponsorship of the SIG-E Grant project made this research possible. The expertise and guidance provided by OASAS staff proved invaluable in the furthering of positive goals by both institutions in this study.

Both academic institutions utilized act as progressive leaders in the city's Campus-Community partnership, which recently received recognition from the State of New York for innovative programming. Working with the coalition has aided in addressing many of the common challenges facing all coalition members. Thank you to both institutions for allowing this data to be of potential benefit to others struggling with these same campus challenges.


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Jerimy Blowers, Ph.D., LMHC, NCC

State University of New York

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Jerimy Blowers, Ph.D., LMHC, NCC, SUNY Plattsburgh, Health Center Building, 101 Broad Street, Plattsburgh, NY 12901; Phone: (518) 564-2187; Fax: (518) 564-2188; Toll Free: (866) 858-4089; Email:
Frequency of Reported Behaviors Between Four-Year and
Community College Students

                               Four-   Community
Variable                       year     College     P values

Hangover                       72.8%     71.1%     p = .15
Poor Test Score                28.8%     28.9%     p = .59
Trouble With Police             16%      16.9%     p = .79
Damaged Property, Fire Alarm    4.8%      8.9%     p = .52
Argument or Fight              41.3%     38.1%     p = .45
Missed Class                   34.2%     28.9%     p = .14
Been Criticized                37.9%     36.6%     p = .43
Driven Under the Influence     18.6%     28.7%     p = .002
5+ Drinks in the Last Two        56%     47.1%     p = .002
  Weeks (Binge Drinking

Figure 1: Graphical representation of Four-year sample frequency
of binge drinking behaviors in response to the question "Looking
back over the last two weeks, how many times you had five or more
drinks at a sitting?"

4-year Sample Binge Drinking Behavior

                5+ drinks in last 2 wks

None             228
Once              68
Twice             61
3-5 times        101
6-9 times         40
10+ times         20

Note: Table made from bar graph.
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