Volume 80 | Issue 3
May 2012

Don't Blame it on the Alcohol: A literature review on college binge drinking predictors

Elizabeth Atwood

In the United States, many people equate the college experience with drinking and partying. Often alcohol plays a major role in the college experience as students develop social networks in their first years of college. This is not a new phenomenon—in his 1970 book “The Domesticated Drug: Drinking among Collegians,” George Maddox said that alcohol was so vital to socialization in the college culture that not drinking was viewed as violating social norms. According to Suzanne Colby, John Colby, and George Raymond in a 2009 issue of Addictive Behaviors, students tend to perceive college as separate from “the real world” and engage in drinking behavior in which they most likely would avoid—or will cease participating in after graduation—if they had more real-world responsibilities.

Excessive drinking has become a common occurrence because of an emphasis on drinking to get drunk, which is part of the culture of drinking on many U.S. college campuses.

But what are the determinants of binge drinking? Societal factors like family, peers, and early exposure to alcohol have not received a great deal of attention but could provide insight into what leads to high-risk drinking. 

Drinking among college students

Excessive drinking is typically described as binge drinking, which the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines as five or more drinks on a single occasion for men and four or more drinks on a single occasion for women. A drink is equivalent to a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.25-ounce shot of liquor. “This definition of a binge [approximately one drink per hour] … is roughly equivalent to the amount of alcohol needed to bring the blood alcohol concentration level to at least 0.08 percent,” Scott Carlson, Season Johnson, and Pauline Jacobs wrote in a 2010 issue of Addictive Behaviors.

“Research reveals that approximately 70 percent of today’s college students drink alcohol, and 40 percent report drinking five or more drinks in one sitting,” Brian Dietz stated in his 2004 Bulletin article. Further, a 2007 Brown University Digest of Addictive Theory & Application article reported that many students have consumed significantly more than five drinks on a single occasion—closer to 10 drinks for some students—indicating that excessive drinking is a potentially more serious problem on college campuses than is recognized in most of the literature.

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that approximately 1,700 college students die each year from alcohol-related injuries, including alcohol poisoning and motor vehicle accidents. College-age students are also more likely to report binge drinking in the past year than any other age group, with full-time college students reporting heavier and more frequent alcohol use than their non-student peers, according to Colby, Colby, and Raymond. Alarmingly, the authors said: “Despite increased enforcement of campus alcohol policies and availability of campus-based alcohol education and interventions, rates of heavy drinking have remained stable overall and rates of the most extreme drinking (e.g., frequent drunkenness; drinking to get drunk) and resulting harm to student drinkers has significantly increased since 1993.” 

Predictors of binge drinking

Age has been the focus of many studies related to drinking because the legality of alcohol consumption is based on age. However, it is not clear what age group of college students is most likely to binge drink. There are many possible reasons why, despite legal ramifications, underage students engage in binge drinking more frequently. Enforcement of the minimum drinking age tends to be lax and alcohol is cheap and easy to obtain for most underage college students, Henry Wechsler and colleagues reported in a 2002 Journal of American College Health. Students living in coed residence halls—typically first-year and sometimes second-year students—are more likely to engage in binge drinking than students living in substance-free housing, off-campus housing, or with a parent as Elissa Weitzman, Toben Nelson, and Henry Weschler reported in a 2003 Journal of Adolescent Heath. In a 2002 issue of Alcohol Research & Health, Kelli Komro and Traci Tooney also found that younger students tend to not be as academically focused as students in their third or fourth years of college and are not as concerned with the negative effects binge drinking may have on their school work. Drinking 

While there are many reasons why underage college students would choose to binge drink, there are also reasons why students age 21 or older might choose to engage in this behavior. Heavy drinking on the 21st birthday has seemingly become a rite of passage for young adults, with the media highlighting birthday traditions like “21 for 21” (21 drinks on the 21st birthday). The ability to drink legally is often viewed as something to celebrate, with both students who had previously engaged in drinking and previous abstainers consuming alcohol on their 21st birthday. In a 2008 Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Patricia Rutledge, Aesoon Oark, and Kenneth Sher stated that half of young adults drinking on their birthdays consumed more than their previous maximum number of drinks consumed at one time. Surprisingly, participation in “21 for 21” is about equal for men and women, which is particularly interesting because of the increased danger for women at that rate of consumption, Rutledge and colleagues said. Establishing dangerous drinking behavior on the 21st birthday and celebrating by binge drinking on others’ 21st birthdays could lead to binge drinking behavior throughout the remaining college years for older students. Because previous research has shown high levels of binge drinking for both underage college students (age 20 or younger) and older traditional-age college students (21–22), it would be helpful to know exactly at what age students are more likely to binge drink.

The importance of sex in regards to binge drinking is evidenced by the accepted definition including differing numbers of drinks for men and women. What the definition fails to address, however, is why men and women respectively binge drink and who is actually binge drinking more.

One issue that can contribute to higher levels of binge drinking by either men or women in college is social tolerance of alcohol. If a student perceives that he or she can tolerate more alcohol than others, he or she is likely to try to consume more than the peers with whom he or she is drinking, Kimberly Mallett and colleagues reported in a 2009 Addictive Behaviors article. This could in turn lead this individual’s friends to consume more than they normally would to try to keep up, thus creating an approving environment for high levels of drinking. Sex plays a role in this as men are often perceived as having a higher tolerance for alcohol than women so a male student might try to drink more than any female peers with whom he is drinking. Also, male students might be more likely to drink more to keep up with perceived peer drinking. Female students might feel compelled to drink more if they feel they need to prove their alcohol tolerance to male peers. Thus, increased social tolerance of alcohol could lead to increased frequency of binge drinking by both male and female college students.

While the majority of the previous research on college alcohol use has focused simply on the difference between male and female drinking, the reasons why females would be likely to binge drink have received less attention in research. Among these reasons are depressive symptoms, disordered eating, and increased exercise. While increased exercise can be motivated by health benefits, in 2008, Michele Johnson Moore and Chudley Werch’s Journal of American College Health article showed that female college students who exercise more frequently than average have increased participation in binge drinking. Women who exercise frequently might feel they can drink more because of the calories they have burned. Conversely, female college students who binge drink might work out to fend off weight gain caused by high-caloric alcohol consumption. Additionally, both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa have been linked to binge drinking, with the term “drunkorexia” becoming common to describe the practice of replacing meals with alcohol consumption, the Journal of Dual Diagnosis has reported.

Relatedly, low self-esteem has been shown to be a predictor of alcohol use, and females tend to have lower self-esteem than males, according to Zuzana Veselska and fellow researchers in the March 2009 edition of Addictive Behaviors. Depressive symptoms in women have also been shown to be correlated with increased alcohol consumption, and Zaje Harrell, Jennifer Slane, and Kelly Klump’s 2009 Addictive Behaviors article showed that females tend to use alcohol for mood-altering effects in response to depressive symptoms. The stress of college living and academics could contribute to female students deciding to binge drink to gain relief. On the other hand, women have been shown to drink less than men. This could be due to aging out of drinking behavior earlier than male students, Colby, Colby, and Raymond reported.

It is also important to examine why male college students might chose to binge drink. More specifically, male students are more likely to perceive that their peers are drinking more heavily and more frequently than they actually are. Male students are also more likely to perceive that heavy alcohol use is positive and accepted by peers, their families, and professors, Veselska and colleagues reported. Drinking is seen as a “greater part of the male social identity, relative to the female social identity,” and it “makes up a larger part of college men’s self-concept,” according to Joseph LaBrie, Justin Hummer, and Clayton Neighbors’ 2008 Addictive Behaviors article. Male students also report drinking because of boredom more frequently than female students, Colby, Colby, and Raymond found. The increased popularity of drinking games also has important implications for male binge drinking. Males are more likely to participate in drinking games than females (though the disparity has decreased over the past few years) and are less likely to report negative consequences as a result of participating in drinking games, a 2010 Journal of American College Health article reported. 

Frequency of drinking in high school

Students with a history of drinking prior to college are often viewed as most likely to engage in risky drinking behavior in college. A 2002 study in Addiction comparing college drinking habits in the United States and Canada found that “students who reported first drunkenness before age 16 are more likely to engage in heavy alcohol use, regardless of country.” This is more the rule than the exception, as most adolescents begin drinking around the ages of 13 or 14, with some beginning as early as elementary school, Ann Masten and her fellow researchers reported in a 2009 issue of Alcohol Research & Health.

Popularity also can influence high school students to binge drink. Students who report having higher levels of perceived popularity tend to have more accepting attitudes regarding alcohol, cigarette, and marijuana use and higher alcohol consumption rates than students who report being less popular, according to Lara Mayeux, Marlene Sandstrom, and Antonius Cillessen in a 2008 Journal of Research on Adolescence. The authors reported that: “Young high school students may feel strongly motivated to assert their dominance over peers in order to take their place at the top of the hierarchy. However, once they have established their popular status, they will likely be motivated to act in ways that serve to maintain that status over time. This might be accomplished in a variety of ways, among them an affirmation of maturity via engagement in ‘adult’ behaviors such as sexual activity and the use of alcohol.”

Middle school and high school students often use alcohol to seem more mature to their peers, Mayeaux and his colleagues reported, so it is feasible that college students could use alcohol for the same reason, especially if that is why they consumed alcohol in middle school or high school. Conversely, according to Colby, Colby, and Raymond, students might see college as their last chance to act like adolescents before becoming adults with responsibilities, so they engage in binge drinking behavior like they did when they were adolescents. The authors stated: “Students perceive the real world to be a burdensome place, while college provides a last opportunity to freely enjoy life. These beliefs may motivate heavy drinking in college.” 

Family attitudes toward alcohol use

Of the environmental aspects that could affect binge drinking by college students, family influence may be one of the strongest. “Upon matriculation into college, students are presented with an independent living situation removed from parental oversight in which underage drinking is culturally acceptable and alcohol is readily available and at the forefront of social life,” Joseph LaBrie and colleagues said in a 2009 edition of Addictive Behaviors. The decision to binge drink could be heavily influenced by families’ perception and attitudes toward alcohol use. Drinking2 

College students have spent essentially the first two decades of their lives watching and learning from their parents. Children see their parents, siblings, or other close family members behaving a certain way or discussing a behavior (either positively or negatively) and often internalize the messages they hear and emulate the behavior. “Young people who reported that they came from, socialized within, or were exposed to ‘wet’ environments (environments involving alcohol) were more likely to pick up binge drinking in college than were their peers without similar exposures,” Weitzman and his colleagues reported. Conversely, a child who has grown up in an environment that shuns alcohol use and has only heard negative messages from his or her family regarding alcohol might continue to abstain from alcohol and not binge drink in college.

Of course, most college students are not raised in environments that only expose them to the extreme views of alcohol use and binge drinking. This variety in the messages, beliefs, and behaviors by family members that a child observes and internalizes makes predicting binge drinking behavior much more complicated than the polarized views presented.

One of the best predictors of alcohol dependence or abuse is a family history of dependence or abuse, specifically by a parent, grandparent, or both. However, previous research in this area has primarily focused on alcoholism over the long term and not binge drinking behavior, which is problematic but does not necessarily indicate alcoholism. A 1995 Women & Health study by Cathy Bogart and colleagues found no connection between family history of alcohol abuse and increased alcohol consumption by female college students. The 2009 study on family alcoholism and college female alcohol use (heavy, episodic drinking in particular) by LaBrie and colleagues showed, “Students with a reported family history of alcohol abuse consume significantly greater amounts of alcohol during the initial weeks of college than students without a reported family history of alcohol abuse … [and] exhibited riskier drinking patterns in all categories of alcohol consumption, including total drinks, maximum drinks, and heavy episodic drinking events. Results confirm prior studies that show greater alcohol vulnerability for college females with a family history of problematic drinking than without.”

While these are important findings, it is necessary to examine specifically how family attitudes, not just alcoholism versus non-alcoholism, affect students’ decision to binge drink. 

Involvement in student organizations

Involvement in on-campus activities and its effect on binge drinking has received relatively little attention in the study of college students’ alcohol-related behavior. Weitzman, Nelson, and Wechsler found that students who attended programming where alcohol was available (fraternity and sorority events, sporting events, etc.) were more likely to binge drink than students who attended events on campus that were alcohol-free. Many universities have developed alcohol-free programs or events intended to help reduce the tendency of students to “party” on the weekends through sort of a “keep them busy” principle.

The current literature on alcohol use and campus involvement is generally focused on programs specifically designed for alcohol education and reducing drinking. But little research has been dedicated to studying whether involvement in on-campus activities is effective at reducing excessive drinking. Those studies that have been conducted, however, show that students who participate in university events and activities are less likely to participate in binge drinking or drinking and driving, and that they report fewer negative consequences from drinking than other students, according to Ivan Sun and Jamie Longazel’s 2008 Journal of Criminal
Justice article. 

Membership in fraternal organizations

In addition to Sun and Logazel, researchers such as Brian Borsari and his colleagues and Jeff DeSimone have found that fraternal organization membership leads to higher frequencies of excessive drinking than non-greek students. These studies support the stereotype that college students involved in fraternities and sororities drink more than other college students. “College itself often conveys an image of fraternity parties with abundant intoxicated students, perhaps engaging in behaviors such as sex or vandalism,” DeSimone said in his 2009 Economic Inquiry article. Heavier alcohol use by students involved in fraternal organizations could be attributed to several factors.

Fraternities and sororities are present on most university campuses, with approximately 16 percent of college students nationwide belonging to these organizations, DeSimone stated in the article. In trying to overcome the assumptions that fraternities and sororities are purely social organizations, the fraternal community has touted positive outcomes for members, including leadership opportunities, academic excellence, campus involvement, and philanthropic engagement.

While many students join these organizations to realize these benefits, it seems that in alcohol use the greek stereotype also plays a role. “Undoubtedly, students choose to join fraternities in part because of preexisting preferences toward behaviors that membership facilitates,” DeSimone wrote. Essentially, membership in a fraternal organization may provide a large social network of students who behave in similar ways, particularly with regard to partying and alcohol. Further, LaBrie, Hummer, and Neighbors found that greek students, as compared with other college students, shared a perception that not drinking to normalized consumption levels carries social penalties.

Participation in intercollegiate athletics

Like membership in fraternal organizations, participation in intercollegiate athletics is an example of campus involvement that tends to be viewed as an indicator of alcohol use. While many college students choose to participate in intramural or club sports for fun, students participating in varsity or intercollegiate athletics have a higher rate of alcohol use. “High school and college student athletes have been identified as being at risk for engaging in problematic drinking patterns, as studies indicate greater weekly alcohol consumption, more frequent heavy episodic drinking, and higher rates of negative alcohol-related consequences among athletes compared to non-athletes,” Joel Grossbard and fellow researchers wrote in a 2009 edition of Addictive Behaviors. 

Drinking3There are many possible reasons why college athletes have higher rates of alcohol use than non-athlete students. Student athletes spend a great deal of time together and are often isolated from the general student population because of their regimented schedules. Therefore, drinking behavior—real and perceived—within this peer group can be influential, according to David Yusko and colleagues’ 2008 Addictive Behaviors article. In studies regarding alcohol use by student athletes, college athletes tend to overestimate alcohol consumption by both nonathlete students and student athletes even more than the typical college student does, Grossbard and colleagues found. Given this overestimation, some student athletes might then drink more to fit in.

The intense schedules and dual roles of student athletes are often considered huge stressors, and studies on predictors of student athlete drinking have found that college athletes will use alcohol to deal with or get away from pressures, Yusko and his colleagues reported. Interestingly, student athletes do not tend to view alcohol use as a risk or as something that could negatively affect their athletic performance, the authors wrote. A similar finding was reported in Moore and Werch’s 2008 Journal of American College Health study on vigorous exercise and college drinking. According to the researchers, “College students who were frequent exercisers reported drinking alcohol significantly more often and drinking a significantly greater quantity of alcohol than did infrequent exercisers.” This could indicate shared beliefs and norms regarding exercise and the effects of alcohol use among the general college student population and student athletes as part of the drinking culture on campuses. 

Life satisfaction at school

According to a 2002 Journal of Child and Family Studies article, “Life satisfaction judgments are based upon personal comparisons between individuals’ self-imposed criteria and perceived life circumstances. Such appraisals are expected to influence the probability of subsequent emotional and coping responses.” Mental factors could have a major impact on a student’s life satisfaction, especially when students are faced with the stresses of school, finances, and preparing for a career; the difficulties of fitting in and maintaining friendships and peer relations in a transient population; and navigating the transition from child to adult and living on their own. Individuals may react to a low satisfaction with life by engaging in risk-taking behavior, such as binge drinking, the article reported. A 2007 Community College Journal of Research and Practice study on stress and coping mechanisms by college students showed that 39 percent of college students use drinking as a coping mechanism.
On the other hand, risk-taking behavior could affect a person’s life satisfaction. Drinking heavily could increase stress and negative emotions for an individual and lead to lower life satisfaction, according to a 2009 article in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. Of course, the relationship between risky behavior and satisfaction with life could be cyclical; a student binge drinks to cope with lower life satisfaction while in college but then feels worse about life after drinking and drinks more to cope with the stress and negativity.
Whether the relationship between risk-taking behaviors, such as binge drinking, and life satisfaction is cyclical or unidirectional, it is clear there is a link. Yet, few studies have focused specifically on binge drinking, and even fewer have focused on binge drinking behavior among college students.

Building a larger context

By examining what demographic and environmental variables lead college students to drink to dangerous levels, professionals can better impede students’ decision to binge drink. Rather than looking simply at drinking habits, a broader context is needed for policies and programming to be effective. The factors of age, sex, frequency of drinking in high school, family attitudes, involvement in student organizations, greek membership, participation in intercollegiate athletics, and life satisfaction at school provide insights into what influences students’
drinking habits. 

Contributor biography

AtwoodElizabeth Atwood began her career as the late-night program advisor at the University of Wyoming in 2007. She is currently an event coordinator for CSU Events and Constituent Engagement Colorado State University, where she coordinates development and president’s office events. She holds a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Wyoming. Her professional interests include late-night programming, service learning, leadership development, and event design.