Non-Using Students in a Drinking Culture: Forming the Critical Mass

Michele C. Murray and Elizabeth A. Traylor

Nearly 33% of college students would prefer to live in alcohol-free environments (Presley, Meilman, & Lyerla, 1993), yet only half of these are non-users. For 15-18% of students who would rather not drink but continue to do so, it is their perceptions of general use on campus that influence their decisions to consume alcohol. These potential non-users drink alcohol in accord with misperceived norms of alcohol consumption in college regardless of their preference to live alcohol-free. Accordingly, efforts to curb the alcohol epidemic on college and university campuses have had varied success rates. When paired with actual non-users, potential non-users form a student population large enough to challenge the norms of alcohol consumption in college. Relying on Critical Mass and Common Bond theories, student affairs practitioners can empower non-users and potential non-users to affect positive change within their campus cultures.

Just how extensive is alcohol consumption on our college campuses? According to Eigen (1991), American college students drink approximately 430 million gallons of alcohol annually, or enough to fill 3,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Eigen further notes that since beer is the drink of choice for most college students, their annual beer consumption translates to nearly four billion cans (1991). Clearly, alcohol consumption continues to be a popular activity among college students regardless of the fact that most traditional-aged students, 18-22 year-olds, are not of legal drinking age.

While alcohol consumption rates for the national population are declining, rates on campuses remain high causing concern among parents, some students, and the general public. Many institutions have responded to the public's demand for change by either aiming to reduce student drinking or attempting to eliminate it altogether. Since the legal drinking age was raised to 21 years in all 50 states, colleges and universities have made efforts to remove alcohol from their campuses (Seligmann, Christian, Rosenburg, & Buckley, 1991). The National Collegiate Athletic Association no longer allows alcohol or alcohol advertising at college sporting events, and many universities prohibit alcohol-related advertisements in student newspapers. Administrators explain that such advertising is counter-productive to effective enforcement of on-campus alcohol policies (Dodge, 1990). In a different approach, Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) educators plaster their campuses with messages concerning the negative effects of consumptive behavior. Yet, despite these preventative measures, alcohol continues to be a part of college cultures for the majority of traditional-aged, resident students.

Wechsler, Davenport, Dowdall, Moeykens, and Castillo (1994) found that nearly 85% of college students drink alcohol. However, a recent study sponsored by the Core Institute found that nearly one third of all college students would prefer to be in an alcohol-free environment (Presley, Meilman, & Lyerla, 1993). This indicates that in addition to the 15% who had never consumed alcohol, 15-18% of all drinkers would actually prefer not to be involved in a campus drinking culture.

According to these findings, non-users and potential non-users make up a substantial portion of the student population (Presley, Meilman, & Lyerla, 1993). Who are these non-using and potential non-using students, and how do student affairs professionals effectively establish contact with them? Using Critical Mass theory and the findings of various studies, this manuscript will explore the possibilities of changing the campus environment and college culture by concentrating programming efforts on those students who already prefer to live alcohol-free. The authors make the assumption that transforming college norms from drinking to non-drinking would be a positive and healthy step, especially considering the under-age status of the majority of resident students.

The Drinking Majority: Who are They?

Wechsler et al. (1994) conducted the most widely spread study ever done on undergraduate student drinking behavior in United States colleges and universities. Their sample included 17,592 students from 140 colleges and universities located in 40 states and the District of Columbia (Wechsler et al.). By questioning students with a 20-page survey instrument, the researchers studied the nature and extent of binge drinking among college students. Most college students, approximately 85%, drink alcohol. However, students consume alcohol in different amounts and at differing frequencies (Martin & Hoffman, 1993). In their research, Wechsler et al. defined binge drinking as the consumption of five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more drinks in a row for women. The researchers learned that about 44% of students sampled were binge drinkers and of this group 19% binged frequently.

In addition, Wechsler et al.'s (1994) criterion for "problem drinkers" was self-reported experience with five or more alcohol-related problems (i.e., hangover, missed class, injury, unsafe/unplanned sex, arguments with friends, property damage, etc.). Approximately half of the frequent binge drinkers reported experiencing five or more of the 12 problems outlined in the survey. Wechsler et al. also included questions which would identify the students' self-assessment of their drinking behaviors. Interestingly, less than one percent of the total sample designated themselves as problem drinkers while the data indicated that approximately 10% of students met the researchers' problem drinker criteria (Wechsler et al.).

Ignorance or Desire for Acceptance: Why do Students Drink?

Although they do not describe themselves as "problem drinkers" most students are aware of the negative effects associated with drinking including hangovers, drunk-driving accidents, and injuries. Lesser known effects of alcohol use include infrequent participation in campus activities, negative psychological stress, and a decreased grade-point average (Martin & Hoffman, 1993). If students have information about the harmful consequences of alcohol use, then why do they continue to binge drink?

For the 15-18% of students who would rather not drink but do so anyway, it is their perceptions of general use on campus that affect their decisions to drink. These potential non-users have observed the "unwritten rules that define preferable, acceptable and unacceptable behavior" and act accordingly (Bucknam, 1994b, p. 82). The unwritten rule is: college students drink alcohol; they perceive abstaining to be unacceptable behavior within the college culture.

Several studies have demonstrated a connection between the individual's alcohol use and that of his or her peer group (Martin & Hoffman, 1993). Among college students, alcohol use is more closely associated with peer use than with any other outside influence (Berkowitz, 1991; Hearsum, 1994; Perkins, 1991; Sherry & Stolberg, 1987). On college campuses, where 85% of students drink, it is very likely that all students will be influenced by their peers at some point in their academic life. Oddly, Presley, Meilman, and Lyerla (1993) noted that "students' perceptions of use on campus generally tends [sic] to be greater than is reflected in the actual percent of students who use alcohol" (p. 59). In other words, potential non-users perceive their peers to be consuming more alcohol than they really are.

Non-Drinkers: Social Deviants or Model Students?

Non-using students generally cross gender, racial, ethnic, and religious lines. However, some characteristic patterns arose from Wechsler et al.'s 1994 study on binge drinking. Demographically, students from the southern and western parts of the United States are less likely to indulge in binge drinking than students in the northeast and north central regions. Also, students attending commuter schools are more likely to identify as non-users than students in residential colleges. Female students, especially those attending women's colleges, have higher rates of non-use and prefer alcohol-free environments with more frequency than their male counterparts (Wechsler et al.). Likewise, African American students, especially in predominately black institutions, have higher rates of non-use than white students (Eigen, 1991; Wechsler et al.).

Alcohol and drug educators identify several groups of students as belonging to the non-using cohort. These students, who view abstinence as their only viable choice include: students whose religious affiliation prohibits alcohol use, adult children of alcoholics, diabetics, and recovering addicts (Berkowitz, 1991; McBee, 1994; Seligmann, Christian, Rosenberg, & Buckley, 1991). Berkowitz also names under-age students, athletes, and students who are concerned about the health risks related to alcohol as non-users.

How are Abstainers Affected by Drinkers?

No matter what their reasons, abstainers and non-bingeing drinkers choose not to participate in the activities and consequences surrounding bingeing. Choosing not to participate, however, does not necessarily protect the person from the effects of others' behaviors. Unfortunately, the non-using students are four times as likely to suffer from the negative behaviors associated with alcohol use than their "drinking" classmates (Wechsler et al., 1994). Wechsler et al. called this phenomenon the "Secondary Binge Effect."

More than mere inconvenience, however, non-using students' physical health and safety are sometimes at risk due to Secondary Binge Effects. At schools with high bingeing levels, 26% of women reported experiencing unwanted sexual advances; 13% of students were pushed, hit, or assaulted; 15% had their property damaged; 54% "baby sat" a drunken student; and 68% had their sleep or study time interrupted (Wechsler et al., 1994). Much like the effects of second-hand smoking on non-smokers, these Secondary Binge Effects had profound consequences on the quality of the non-using students' life at college.

As a result of their study, Wechsler et al. (1994) concluded that "in addition to addressing the health problems of alcohol abusers, a major effort should address the large group of students who are not binge drinkers on campus who are adversely affected by the alcohol-related behavior of binge drinkers" (p. 1677). Since many researchers observe that current policies and prevention efforts have made little impact on the drinking behavior of college students, student affairs professionals should enact a new method of prevention (McBee, 1994; Wechsler et al.).

Student affairs professionals could work with non-using students and potential non-using students to change the college norm from drinking to non-drinking. As non-smokers bonded together to create a critical mass forceful enough to change this society's attitudes toward smoking, so should non-users unite to sway campus culture from an atmosphere centered on alcohol to one that caters to the non-user (Bucknam, 1994a; Hearsum, 1994; Lyerla, 1994).

A Critical Need for a Critical Mass

Peer perceptions define drinking behaviors to be congruent with the norms of "college life," putting non-users and potential non-users in an environment that is in direct conflict with their values (Bucknam, 1994a). They might even describe their college environment as hostile toward their needs and values. For non-users and potential non-users to feel comfortable confronting negative or inappropriate drinking behavior, misperceptions and college norms will have to change (Berkowitz, 1991).

Proactive Prevention: Forming the Critical Mass

Most commonly, alcohol and drug educators use a reactive prevention model to educate college students about the dangers of alcohol and other drugs (Bucknam, 1994a). However, destruction of peer misperceptions requires a different approach. Rather than educating about health concerns surrounding alcohol consumption, Bucknam proposes a proactive prevention that concentrates on

how the higher educational organization itself can empower, give permission to, reorganize, and help a new critical mass to create itself using the desire of a large number of students to have an alcohol-free social life as the organizing mechanism. Using that mechanism the institution can bring together the critical mass needed to create a new cultural scene that incorporates a new and positive set of expected and rewarded behaviors that are associated with the desired social and academic growth and development. (p. 79)

Proactive prevention is a concept designed to empower non-users and potential non-users to "de-normalize" alcohol use and affect positive change within their campus cultures (Bucknam, 1994b; Manzanares, 1988; McBee, 1994). Movement toward an alcohol-free college environment requires the leadership of the 33% of students whose values are consistent with this change. This 33% is a large enough student population to form a critical mass.

Critical Mass theory relies on a shared value or common bond among many individuals. This common bond strengthens the group into a cohesive unit, thereby granting the group enough power to affect social change (Hearsum, 1994). For non-users and potential non-users, their desire to live in an alcohol-free college environment is their common bond; this must be the focus of all proactive efforts to bring about change in the college drinking culture. The critical mass is crucial to transforming societal norms (McBee, 1994; Szalay, 1994). Once the critical mass of non-using students is identified, the common bond must be generated and nurtured. Programming strategies can assist the new critical mass in its formation and then support its efforts in trying to create an alcohol-free college environment (Hearsum, 1994).

Putting the Theories to Work

Hearsum (1994) recommends a program model called "Common Bond Facilitation" to support a new critical mass of non-using students on college campuses. Her model consists of planning events and finding facilities as well as inviting non-using and potential non-using students to attend. She reminds programmers of the importance of always working to cement the common bond among students who prefer an alcohol-free environment.

Planning, Hearsum (1994) advises, is most "effective when done by students for students" (p. 86). The planning committee should be a core group of active non-users because they know best how to program for other non-using students. Hearsum suggests helping students to find a variety of facilities to hold events on and off campus. Alcohol-free events and entertainment should occur consistently at a number of locations "so that students know they can always have a choice of AOD-free activities, particularly late at night on week-ends" (p. 87). Finally, Hearsum recommends sponsoring the first few events by invitation-only to known non-users and potential non-users by referral. Eventually, she believes, the idea of AOD-free activities will gain popularity through word of mouth.

With Hearsum's model as a framework, several institutions of higher education are already sponsoring activities to support the new critical mass of non-users. Efforts include student groups, substance-free residence halls, and AOD-free activities.

Student Action Movement

The Student Action Movement (SAM) has headquarters at The University of Vermont with several chapters in the New England area (Hedin, 1994; McBee, 1994). Among SAM's goals are "build[ing] healthy and safe campuses by changing attitudes towards high risk consumption, providing viable social alternatives, actively participating in the development of policy and creating a new perspective on campus leadership" (McBee, p. 1).

One of SAM's unique qualities is its refusal of funding from the alcohol industry. SAM separates itself from other student groups such as Boost Alcohol Consciousness Concerning the Health of University Students (BACCHUS) and Greeks Advocating Mature Management of Alcohol (GAMMA) because it does not believe that educational efforts funded by the alcohol industry can be effective. AOD-free programming that is supported by the industry delivers mixed messages to students and discourages students who have religious or cultural objections (Hedin, 1994).

Substance-Free Housing

Another idea that is receiving national attention is the substance-free residence hall. These halls draw considerable numbers of students who wish to be free from the hassles of living with their drinking peers. Residents usually sign a pledge to remain substance-free as a part of their housing contract with the university (Seligmann, Christian, Rosenburg, & Buckley, 1991).

As non-using students begin to gravitate toward common living areas, a critical mass forms automatically as does their common bond. Student efforts toward programming and education are naturally centered in substance-free housing. Institutions such as The College of the Holy Cross, Michigan State University, Boston University, Tufts University, The University of Vermont, Saint Michael's College, and Johnson State College have found this program to be a successful housing option (Cote, 1993; Seligmann, Christian, Rosenburg, & Buckley, 1991).

Dry Greek Organizations

The Indiana University chapter of Alpha Tau Omega (AT½) became a "dry" fraternity in 1993 after a pledge nearly died in a hazing incident involving large quantities of beer, wine, and whiskey (Gose, 1995). As part of the agreement, AT½ refrains from sponsoring any alcohol related events, and its members do not drink within the chapter's walls. Within one year of the fraternity's new status, membership began to grow. AT½ leaders say the heightened interest in their fraternity is because "students are looking for the camaraderie and leadership opportunities of Greek life, minus the omnipresent kegs" (Gose, p. A31).

Other Programming Efforts

Students at many other institutions have begun their own events and traditions catering specifically to the non-using and potential non-using student. Marcus (1994) reports that students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst started a ballroom dancing club; Franklin and Marshall College students prefer hip-hop club dancing, so they created the very popular Hip-Hop Review; Vanderbilt University has extended hours for its sports facilities; and students from Johns Hopkins University founded their own coffeehouse which is open every Friday night until 2:00 a.m. Other popular programs around the country include speakers and luncheon series for non-using students to meet one another and spend time with faculty and administrators who support their efforts (Conway, 1991; Perkins, 1991).

Interestingly, Wechsler et al. (1994) found that binge drinking was less likely at institutions that were at least one mile from the nearest alcohol outlet. Clearly, institutional efforts to promote alcohol-free lifestyles and support non-using students should be matched by external efforts within the community.

Conclusions and Suggestions for Further Research

Students' drinking behaviors will not end or be modified overnight. Colleges and universities are responding to their campuses' alcohol and drug climates in a variety of ways. It is important, however, for administrators and policy makers to remember the second-hand effects of drinking on non-drinkers just as we remember the second-hand effects of smoking on non-smokers. No longer can we ask non-drinking students to endure the distracting and harmful behavior of their peers. They are entitled to sleep, study, and thrive at their college without being disrupted by drunk neighbors.

Further research is necessary to better determine who might be included in the new critical mass of non-users. To date, characteristics of typically non-using students are nebulous at best. It would be helpful to know if trends toward non-use exist along racial, ethnic, religious, and/or class lines. The sooner non-users and potential non-users are identified, the sooner they can be contacted by peers who hold similar values and norms.

Theories regarding critical mass and peer perception may also be aptly applied to other populations of students whose behaviors defy negative college norms. In short, these theories provide a powerful mechanism for shifting campus cultures. Proactive programming and critical mass formation are exciting avenues for positive social change. Rather than focusing on the negative effects of drinking behaviors, these theories propose that a large enough cohort of students who prefer an alcohol-free environment already exists. This critical mass of students, if supported and nurtured, has the potential to change long standing college norms and attitudes toward alcohol consumption.


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Michele C. Murray is a 1991 graduate of The University of Virginia with a Bachelor's degree in Rhetoric and Communication Studies and Psychology. Currently Michele is in her second year in the HESA program at The University of Vermont and is a Graduate Assistant in the Student Life Office.

Beth is a graduate of Loyola College in Maryland with a Bachelor's degree in Psychology. Currently, Beth is a second year HESA student at The University of Vermont and works for the Department of Residential Life.