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Evaluation tool will help colleges devise approaches to address harmful drinking

September 23, 2015
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Immersed in a fall semester period that he termed the most vulnerable time on campus for dangerous levels of student drinking, a New York college president this week joined the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) to help arm his university colleagues with sound intervention guidance.

Jonathan Gibralter, PhD, president of the upstate Wells College, believes the newly introduced CollegeAIM (Alcohol Intervention Matrix) evaluation tool and interactive website will help college presidents exert much-needed leadership on the issue of harmful drinking on campus. Formally introduced at a Sept. 22 news conference in Washington, D.C., the CollegeAIM user guide will be mailed to every college president in the country next week, said NIAAA director George Koob, PhD.

Gibralter, who chairs the NIAAA College Presidents Working Group to Address Harmful and Underage Drinking, added that fellow college presidents often tell him “this is just too big a problem; you can't influence the behavior of college students.” But he said, “I want to tell you—that is absolutely false.”

The centerpiece of CollegeAIM is an evaluation of intervention strategies that has been two years in the making. Based on a comprehensive review of available research, the evaluation tool lists eight individually focused strategies and five environmental strategies that qualified for the highest tier of effectiveness. The evaluation tool also classifies each of its listed strategies as low-, moderate- or high-cost. Around 60 strategies overall are included.

Gibralter and Koob sidestepped requests in the news conference to state what they think would be the best specific programs for colleges to adopt to address student drinking and its harmful consequences. Gibralter emphasized that what might work in one campus environment could fail in another, and Koob said it even could be valuable for schools to consider some of the interventions in the lower-effectiveness categories, as long as they build in an evaluation component.

Gibralter did suggest that every school should establish some type of campus-based working group on the campus drinking issue, with participation from faculty, staff, students and members of the local community.

Combination of approaches

The presenters at this week's news conference suggested that colleges' strategies must combine approaches targeting the individual student and measures to affect the campus environment. “It's hard to change attitudes [about drinking] if availability is rampant,” said Koob.

Of course, there is only so much that even a college president can do to affect the environment, given that several of the environmental strategies that are judged to have higher effectiveness transcend what happens within the campus. Among the highly effective strategies cited in CollegeAIM are restricting happy hours and price promotions, maintaining bans on Sunday alcohol sales where applicable, and increasing alcohol taxes.

But more leadership in general on this issue from the highest level of adminstration is precisely what Gibralter wants to see. “What's been missing is the influence of college presidents,” he said. “When we believe something matters, staff is more inclined to want to do something to impact student behavior.”

Among the eight individual strategies that made the higher-effectiveness list in CollegeAIM are the low-cost personalized feedback intervention eCHECKUP TO GO, the moderate-cost Alcohol Skills Training Program, and the higher-cost AlcoholEdu for College.

Gibralter said that colleges can use CollegeAIM to compare their current strategies to approaches with which they might not be as familiar, and to devise the most effective mix for their campus environment.

He said the beginning of the fall semester represents a precarious time on campus, with many entering students (generally underage) being exposed to alcohol and having limited experience with consumption to draw from. “The first three to six weeks tend to be the most vulnerable time, where we see students transported to the hospital,” he said.

He believes all college freshmen should be required to take an alcohol prevention course within the first week of entering school. Many colleges use these courses as part of judicial sanction for violators of campus policies, but Gibralter called that approach “too little too late.”

Koob pointed out that CollegeAIM's listings will continue to be updated as more is learned about effective strategies to reduce campus drinking and its harms, the latter of which extend to both drinking and non-drinking students. He said that while national data have shown a slight decrease of late in the percentage of college students who engage in binge drinking, the intensity of binge episodes has been increasing.

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