The effects of college tenure, gender, and social involvement on alcohol drinking and alcoholism in college students.
Subject: Students (Alcohol use)
Drinking of alcoholic beverages
Authors: Vaisman-Tzachor, Reuben
Lai, Judy Y.
Pub Date: 12/22/2008
Publication: Name: Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association Publisher: American Psychotherapy Association Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2008 American Psychotherapy Association ISSN: 1535-4075
Issue: Date: Winter, 2008 Source Volume: 11 Source Issue: 4
Accession Number: 192800781


When opportunities to drink alcohol exist simultaneously with persistent social pressure, and when alcohol use is classically conditioned with pleasurable experiences such as dating and partying--such conditions are likely to lead to social drinking and even alcohol abuse. College life consists of social encounters that involve alcohol and, consequently, may nurture behavioral norms that foster alcohol consumption. It is hypothesized that life in college promotes alcohol drinking and alcoholism tendencies in students, as they engage in essentially four or more years of "training" in alcohol consumption.

Students (n = 168) at a conglomerate of small liberal arts colleges in Southern California were asked to fill out and return via mail self-report questionnaires concerning demographic information, social involvement in college life, and alcohol drinking behavior. Results indicated that tenure in college predicted the development of alcoholism tendency. Specifically, social involvement was the strongest predictor of alcohol consumption and alcoholism tendency, with gender also found to be a strong predictor of alcohol drinking behavior, particularly for males. Both social involvement and gender provided reasons for college students to consume alcohol.

Factor analysis revealed different patterns of alcoholism tendencies for those of pathological nature and those of socially disruptive nature. It further suggested various reasons for alcohol consumption, ranging from external social pressures to internal ones. Unfortunately, the present model could not adequately distinguish between these factors due to multicollinearity limitations.

It was concluded that the propensity towards social involvement in college students might simultaneously increase the risk of self-destructing behaviors--that is, alcohol use and abuse. In addition, these potential byproducts may increase as students gain tenure in college.

KEY WORDS: alcohol consumption, college students, gender, social involvement



DISCLOSURE: The authors have nothing to disclose.



Does a college education produce only better educated individuals or does it also promote alcoholism tendencies? The use and abuse of alcohol by students have been identified as major problems affecting college life (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1990). Although consumption rates vary among college campuses, high alcohol use by college students has been repeatedly supported by numerous studies (Haworth-Hoeppner, Globetti, Stem, & Corasco, 1989; Hughes & Dodder, 1983; Lo & Globetti, 1993), with a reported consumption rate reaching as high as 84% in a national survey of 140 colleges and universities (Wechsler, Davenport, Dowdall, Moeykens, & Castillo, 1994).

Various risks and problems have been associated with alcohol consumption. They include drunkenness (Davison & Neale, 1986; Midanik & Greenfield, 2000; Wechsler & Isaac, 1992), alcoholism-related diseases (Carlson, 1986), alcohol-related traffic deaths (Zador, 1991), drunk driving (Conger & Petersen, 1984; Jones, Peiper, & Robertson, 1992), different forms of cancers (Gross, 1988), impaired cognitive abilities (Carlson, 1986; Glass & Holyoak, 1986; Parker & Noble, 1977), lifetime sexual victimization (Burnam et al., 1988; Winfield, George, Swartz, & Blazer, 1990), homicide (Murdoch, Pihl, & Ross, 1990; Pernanen, 1991), domestic violence (Hamilton & Collins, 1981), rape (Abbey, 1991; Abbey & Ross, 1992; Peraanen, 1991; Ullman & Knight, 1993), and suicide (Jones et al., 1992). Consumption of alcohol among college students has been specifically associated with binge drinking (Isaac, 1992; Dowdall, Davenport, & Rimm, 1995; Wechsler, 1996; Wechsler et al., 1994; Wechsler & Isaac, 1992; Wilsnack, Wilsnack, & Hiller-Strumhofel, 1994), acute alcohol overdose (Hingson, 1998), sexual assault (Abbey, McAuslan, & Ross, 1998; Abbey, Ross, McDuffie, & McAuslan, 1996; Goodchilds & Zellman, 1984; Kanin, 1984, 1985; Koss, 1988; Koss & Gaines, 1993; Mosher & Anderson, 1986; Muehlenhard & Linton, 1987; Ullman, Karabatsos, & Koss, 1999; Wechsler, Deutsch, & Dowdall, 1995), disruption of higher order cognitive processes (Leonard, 1989; Steele & Josephs, 1988; Steele & Southwick, 1985), poor academic performance (Cook & Moore, 1993; Hanson & Engs, 1992; Wechsler, 1996; Wechsler & Isaac, 1992), as well as unplanned and unsafe sexual activity (Presley, Meilman, & Lyerla, 1993).

College and university administrators are increasingly concerned about the negative effects of alcohol drinking in their communities (Baer et al., 1992; Hingson, Berson, & Dowley, 1997; Kaplan, 1998; Marlatt, Baer, & Larimer, 1995; Straus & Bacon, 1953). However, when alcohol becomes an important component in collegiate social activities (Gomberg, 1994; Johnston, O'Malley, & Bachman, 1993; Rabow & Duncan-Schill, 1995; Treise, Wolburg, & Omes, 1999; Wechsler, 1996), "having fun" may become the code of behavior despite emphases placed on academic success and intellectual enrichment. Particularly noteworthy is the ironic contradiction between the declared objectives of college educators and the destructive aspects of alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, drinking alcohol may undermine the very intention of educational institutions to enhance and nurture students' cognitive abilities and performance (Cook & Moore, 1993; Hannon et al., 1987; Parker & Noble, 1977).

College administrators have noted an increase in students' alcohol consumption with each successive year in college (White, 1987; Wiggins & Wiggins, 1987; Straus & Bacon, 1953). Data supporting this observation first emerged in a study by Straus and Bacon (1953), who surveyed alcohol consumption patterns in a large number of American undergraduate students. Wiggins and Wiggins (1987) obtained similar results in a survey conducted at a southern California university. White (1987) also found that drinking-related problems for adolescents reached their peak between the ages of 20 to 24, incidentally the normative age range of many college students.

In general, activities that involve alcohol have become a prevalent social norm in American society. Between the 1960s and 1980s, per capita alcohol consumption in America rose steadily by 60% (Gross, 1988). Although the 1995 alcohol sales data indicated that per capita consumption of alcohol declined (Williams, Stinson, Sanchez, & Dufour, 1997), no significant decreases have been found on reports of social consequences or dependence symptoms (Midanik & Clark, 1994; Midanik & Greenfield, 2000). Reference group theory has attributed the social context as the most significant reason for the progressive increase in alcohol use. From dates, parties, and holiday celebrations to job recruitment, interviews, and receptions (Conger & Petersen, 1984; Kaplan, 1998), students regularly encounter social gatherings that induce what is commonly referred to as "social drinking" (Vogler & Bartz, 1982; Wiggins & Wiggins, 1987). Both direct and indirect peer pressure in such social events appear to influence college students to consume alcohol (Hartford & Grant, 1987; Rabow & Duncan-Schill, 1995). In particular, drinking with best friends may serve as a strong predictor of students' drinking behavior (Downs, 1987; Hannon et al., 1987). If greater pressure from fellow peers may induce more conforming behavior, then conformity in college students may evidence itself in increased alcohol consumption.


The notion that peer pressure may lead to alcohol consumption has been supported by studies that found a high correlation between subjects' drinking habits and that of their best friends (Straus & Bacon, 1953; Wiggins & Wiggins, 1987). For instance, if a high percentage of varsity team members engage in social drinking, the greater the likelihood that the others will also consume alcohol (Christiansen & Teahan, 1987). In general, peer pressure and best friends' drinking behavior seem to be the strongest predictors of alcohol consumption in college students (Conger & Petersen, 1984). As compared with students who abstain from alcohol, those who drink are described as "more likely to engage heavily in social activities" and "to have friends, particularly best friends, who also drink alcohol" (Conger and Petersen, 1984, p. 511). Thus, alcohol consumption may be perceived as a learned social behavior via classical conditioning and reinforcement (Conger & Petersen, 1984).

The analyses conducted in this study differed from those of previous studies in so far as they attempted to clarify causal relationships. It was predicted that if A) higher college status is linked to B) increased alcohol consumption, it is because of an intervening variable C) increased involvement in social activities that serve alcohol. It was also argued that the amount of time spent in college determines the extent to which students engage in social activities involving alcohol. In accordance, reference group settings that socialize students to use alcohol would lead to greater alcohol consumption.


Participants. A total of 300 undergraduate students were randomly selected from a directory of 1,500 students attending private liberal arts colleges in southern California. Because particular importance was placed on the time spent in college, efforts were made to include proportional numbers of students from each college level, which consisted of freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior. Out of 350 seniors, 70 were selected; out of 395 juniors, 79 were selected; out of 375 sophomores, 75 were selected; and out of 380 freshmen, 76 were selected.

The sample consisted of 168 students who returned the completed questionnaire packet, an overall return rate of 58%. In terms of gender distribution, the sample was comprised of 73 men (44%) and 93 women (56%), proportionally comparable to the population of 707 males and 793 females. In regards to the college level, the sample included 44 freshmen, 45 sophomores, 47 juniors, and 30 seniors. In comparison with the student population, the sample was a rough representation of the proportional distribution by college class. The age distribution in the population ranged between 18 to 23 years old. Because more than 55% of the subjects were between the ages of 19 and 20, the sample was further representative of the population in its age composition.

Subjects' total annual family income was normally distributed around a mean of $80,000 to $99,999 per year, for both parents combined. The standard deviation of 2.4 closely approximated the distribution in the population. The ethnic/racial background of the sample consisted of 79% Caucasian, 10% Asian, 6% Hispanic, and 2% African American. Again, this distribution was reflective of the population. Similarly, religious affiliation of the sample cut along the same lines as the population, with 40% secular, 27% Protestant, 14% Catholic, 8% Muslim, 7% Jewish, and 2% Buddhist.

Instrument. A uniform, 10-paged questionnaire packet requiring approximately 10 minutes to complete was sent to all 300 subjects. The Likert-type items addressed subjects' involvement in social activities and alcohol drinking habits. Social involvement was examined by items that inquired about membership and/or participation in social groups, including fraternity/sorority activities, dormitory parties, dates, and holiday celebrations. The indicators of alcohol consumption consisted of questions involving frequency and amount of alcohol use, motivations for drinking alcohol, situations in which alcohol is used, and the frequency in which alcohol consumption led to drunkenness. Standard demographic information was also elicited, including socioeconomic status, year in college, age, and race/ethnicity.

Procedure. Questionnaire packages were distributed through the inter-college mail system to all 300 sample addresses. Each packet contained a cover letter from the researchers and a self-addressed and stamped return envelope. After distribution of the packages, two letters were sent to all subjects in 1-and 2-week intervals, respectively, in order to remind and encourage participation. No personally identifiable information was required, and neither did the return envelope contain personally identifiable information.

The Independent Variable in this study was the subjects' year in college--freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior. The Mediating Factor was the degree of social involvement, indicated by both quantity and frequency of participation in social activities. The Dependent Variables consisted of the reported quantity and frequency of regular alcohol consumption at the time of survey. The dependent variables were measured via the tables by Vogler and Bartz (1982) for calculating blood/alcohol levels and the DSM-IV (1994) list of alcoholism symptoms.

Hypotheses. A causal path was hypothesized, which stated that the higher the college status, the greater the social involvement and, in turn, the more reasons to consume alcohol. It was hypothesized that maintaining more reasons to use alcohol would further result in greater alcohol consumption, followed by a more extensive list of alcoholism symptoms. Gender, socioeconomic status, and racial/ethnic background were not hypothesized to be significant predictors of alcohol consumption.

Statistical Analysis. To ensure internal consistency, all items in the measurement scales were factor analyzed. Items that did not yield loadings of .40 or greater were excluded from the composite (Zeller & Carmines, 1980). Multiple regression data was derived using pairwise deletion of missing values, and all predictors were entered into the equation at each corresponding causal level (Cohen & Cohen, 1983).


Descriptive Statistics. Table 1 presents the descriptive statistics of the sample for all variables in the model. The calculated standard deviations indicated that sufficient variation existed in regards to all variables to justify multivariate analysis.

Factor Analysis. Two factors emerged out of reasons to consume alcohol. One emphasized the external social pressure to drink alcohol, and the other the internal motivation to alter one's state of consciousness. Unfortunately, these two factors correlated to a high degree, prohibiting further regression analysis, which would increase the risk of multicollinearity. Similarly, two factors emerged from the analysis of alcoholism tendencies. Although one seemed more pathological in nature, the other appeared more socially disruptive. These two factors also correlated highly with each other, increasing the risk of multicollinearity with further multiple regression analysis. Factor analysis of the social involvement scale, which consisted of public activities known to involve alcohol, excluded factors containing the element of personal preference, such as competitive sports and artistic endeavors.

Correlations. Table 2 consists of the correlation matrix on which the model was based. Pearson product moment correlation coefficients between the independent variable (year in college), the mediating variable (social involvement), and potentially confounding variables (socioeconomic status, ethnic/racial background, and gender) are sufficiently low to eliminate the potential suppressing effects of multicollinearity (Zeller & Carmines, 1980).

Unlike most of the variables in this study, social involvement did not have a sufficient amount of variation. This was expected, as the social involvement scale was originally intended as a mediating variable, and its predictors had no bearing on this study. In regards to the two central dependent variables, statistically significant amounts of variation were explained, particularly in the scales involving alcoholism tendency and alcohol consumption. In fact, the magnitude of R Square for these latter two scales was shown to be atypical in social science research (Cohen & Cohen, 1983).

Regression Model. Figure 1 presents the regression model developed in this study. Only significant Beta values are marked in the model. Results confirmed that alcoholism tendencies develop with college tenure. However, the relationship between college tenure and social involvement failed to reach statistical significance. As expected, results indicated that social involvement is a salient determiner of all subsequent dependent variables in the model. However, gender was unexpectedly found to also serve as a strong predictor of alcohol drinking behavior.



The results of this study confirmed most of the hypotheses set forth--that is, the higher the college status and more specifically, the greater the social involvement, the more likely college students were to score high on alcohol indicators (i.e., having reasons to consume alcohol, engaging in alcohol drinking behavior, and exhibiting alcoholism tendencies). Such outcome was noted regardless of socioeconomic status or racial/ethnic background. Results also indicated that being a male college student was a particularly good predictor in developing reasons to use and consume alcohol. The findings showed that college students with highly active social lives tended to experience greater social pressure to consume alcohol, as compared with their less socially active counterparts. Socially active students were more likely to find reasons to use and consume alcohol, as well as develop characteristics of alcoholism tendencies. Because social involvement continues to be highly valued by college students, it may be important that school administrators and policymakers seek to address the potentially ill effects of social involvement on students' health and behavior. In order to affect students' drinking behaviors, it may also be important to acknowledge their prevalence and learn about their predictors.

Particularly strong relationships were found between A) having reasons to drink alcohol, B) alcohol consumption, and C) development of classic alcoholism tendencies. These relationships have not been clearly established in previous research on alcohol for this specific population. Nevertheless, the effects were expected. Students in a competitive college environment who have reasons to drink alcohol will typically do so, thereby risking the development of alcoholism tendencies.

A key hypothesis in this study obtained only limited confirmation--that is, number of years in college was not found to be consistently and significantly related to social involvement and alcohol indicators. It might be that college status is related in a non-linear manner or at similar levels across all college years. This relationship, however, was implicitly confirmed by other paths discovered, notably one that predicted an increase in alcoholism tendencies with college tenure. In other words, higher classmen were more likely to exhibit alcoholic symptoms, such as drinking during morning hours, suffering more from hangovers, and drinking alcohol while alone. Of all the effects of tenure in college, this result was perhaps the most unfortunate and distressing. It may be that students encounter greater pressure to succeed academically with each subsequent year in college, such that it becomes increasingly difficult to admit to deviant academic behavior, including alcohol consumption. It may also be too painful to acknowledge the intensified need to consume alcohol, and furthermore, the active actualization of this need. Whereas students in general may tend not to admit to alcohol-related characteristics, upper classmen may particularly encounter difficulties acknowledging symptoms of alcoholism.

Gender was unexpectedly found as a predicting factor in the model. Whether due to external or internal pressure, men were particularly found to have reasons to use alcohol, engage in alcohol consumption, and consequently become intoxicated. Perhaps males use alcohol more readily than their female counterparts because they find the pressure of a competitive college environment more taxing.

As predicted, neither students' socioeconomic status nor racial/ethnic background impacted the alcohol consumption patterns found in this study. Consistent with data from previous studies, results also contradicted the prevalent stereotypes that associate alcoholic tendencies with those of lower socioeconomic status, as well as racial/ethnic minority. According to the present data, those of minority status and lower socioeconomic background are just as likely as their Caucasian and higher income counterparts to abstain from or pursue alcohol consumption.

Summary and Conclusion

Results from this study indicated that the probability of developing alcoholism tendencies increases as students gain tenure in college. Furthermore, social involvement was consistently and strongly linked to all alcoholic characteristics, including higher alcohol consumption and greater need to use alcohol. Peer pressure and best friends' drinking habits also served key elements in the social environment of college life. Social activities, though highly valued, may thus foster the development of alcoholism in college students.

Results pointed to the importance of considering existing policies regarding alcohol use on college campuses. It is very likely that liberal policies regarding alcohol use may contribute to the development of alcoholism in students. The present data denoted the ease by which alcohol consumption becomes incorporated into the social routine and, moreover, the ease by which normal use becomes abuse. Results exemplified how college communities, by embedding social reward within a highly competitive environment, may nurture and promote alcohol use and abuse. Social involvement appeared to be a powerful factor in fostering such self-destructive behaviors.

Important policy questions emerged out of this study. The most noteworthy conflicting choices confronting college administrators may be the promotion of an egalitarian environment and simultaneous curbing of alcohol consumption. It is not clear to what extent counseling and guidance programs may aid students in dealing with the pressures of academic life and freedom to experiment with alcohol use. Should policies that curtail alcohol be enacted in fraternity and sorority meetings? Should such independent social groups be required to serve non-alcoholic beverages along with alcohol, in order to introduce the principle of choice?


Due to the limitations of this study, additional research would be both necessary and beneficial. Subsequent research should acquire a larger sample size, strive for a higher return rate, and correct for attenuation due to the sensitivity associated with the questions. Finer measuring tools that enable a more accurate distinction between motivations to consume alcohol, alcohol-drinking behaviors, and various kinds of social involvement patterns should also be employed. Nonetheless, the effectiveness of the present research design and the data acquired speak for themselves. It is hoped that this study will serve as a foundation for subsequent research.


1. What are the risks and problems specifically associated with consumption of alcohol among college students?

a) binge drinking and alcohol overdose

b) sexual assault, unplanned and unsafe sexual activity

c) disruption of higher order cognitive processes and poor academic performance

d) all of the above

2. What is/are the strongest predictor(s) of alcohol consumption in college students?

a) family history of alcohol abuse

b) level of academic motivation and grades

c) peer pressure and best friends' alcohol drinking behaviors

d) all of the above

3. What were the methods used in the study to arrive at causal relationships in college alcohol drinking?

a) a comprehensive, multi-level analysis of the college population, factor-analyzed onto the sample in a cross-sectional manner

b) a stratified, cross-sectional representative sample of the college population was factor-analyzed and then entered into multiple regression analysis

c) none of the above

d) Both A and B

4. Which factors emerged from the results for reasons to consume alcohol in college students?

a) the external social pressure to drink alcohol and the internal motivation to alter one's state of mind

b) the internal social pressure to drink and the external motivation to alter one's state of mind

c) Both A and B

d) none of the above

5. True or false: Men were found to more likely use alcohol, engage in alcohol consumption, and consequently become intoxicated.

a) True

b) False

6. True or false: Results from this study indicated that the probability of developing alcoholism tendencies increases as students gain tenure in college.

a) True

b) False


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Reuben Vaisman-Tzachor, PhD, FACFEI, DAPA, CHS-III, was born in Israel. He obtained his doctorate in clinical psychology from Alliant International University, California School of Professional Psychology in Los Angeles, where he is currently an adjunct professor. He is a Fellow of the American College of Forensic Examiners, a Diplomate of the American Psychotherapy Association, and is Certified in Homeland Security at Level III.

Judy J. Lai-Yates, PhD, MFT, is a licensed clinical psychologist. She has a private practice in West Los Angeles. In addition to serving local communities, Dr. Lai-Yates is committed to international outreach. Other research areas of interest include assessing neuropsychological sequelae in children with brain tumors as well as issues related to diversity. More information can be found on her Web site:
TABLE 1 Descriptive Statistics of Variables in
the Model of Alcohol Drinking Characteristics

Variable                Mean            S.D.   Minimum Value

Year in college * (1)   2.38            1.07   1 year

Student's family        4.89 (80,000)   2.44   1 (10,000/year)
annual income

Gender                  1.42            .50    1 (female)

Ethnic/racial           .80             .40    1 (African-American,
background                                     Hispanic-American)

Social involvement      14.50           3.84   5 (no social
scale * (2)                                    involvement)

Reasons given for       14.02           4.56   5 (low social pressure)
consuming alcohol *

Alcohol drinking        5.13            2.50   3 (low alcohol
behavior score * (4)                           consumption)

Alcoholism tendency     13.52           4.52   8 (few or no symptoms)
score * (5)

Variable                Maximum Value

Year in college * (1)   4 years

Student's family        10 (180,000/year)
annual income

Gender                  2 (male)

Ethnic/racial           1 (Caucasian)

Social involvement      25 (high social involvement)
scale * (2)

Reasons given for       25 (high social pressure)
consuming alcohol *

Alcohol drinking        15 (high alcohol consumption)
behavior score * (4)

Alcoholism tendency     40 (many symptoms)
score * (5)

(1) Year in college: freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior.

(2) Social involvement scale: Comprised of items that address the
frequency of social involvement--including fraternity, sport teams,
parties, and dares.

(3) Reasons given for alcohol consumption: Comprised of items that
offer explanations for consuming alcohol--including to unwind, be
less shy with members of the opposite sex, and alter state of

(4) Alcohol drinking behavior: A composite of self-report frequency
and quantity of alcohol consumption.

(5) Alcoholism tendency: Comprised of items that address classic
alcoholism symptoms-including drinking alone, drinking in the
morning, getting drunk before the party begins, and hangovers
interfering with duties.

Pearson Product Moment Correlation Coefficients
And Amounts of Explained Variation (R square) in
The Model of Alcohol Drinking Characteristics

Variables        Independent Variables

                 Student    Student   Student
                 income     gender    ethnic

Year in college  -.095      -.045     -.041

Student                     .056      .129 *

Student                               .107

Student ethnic

Reason to

Drinking score


R square

Variables        Dependent Variables

                 Reason to  Drinking  Alcoholism  Social
                 drink      score     tendency    involvement

Year in college  .022       .034      .124 *      -.106

Student          .117 *     .079      .008        .083

Student          .259 **    .466 **   .315 **     .094

Student ethnic   .088       .089      .058        .051

Reason to                   .546 **   .390 **     .281 **

Drinking score                        .762 **     .597 **

Alcoholism                                        .568 **

R square         .146 *     .626 **   .616 **     .024

* = < .05
** = < .001
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