The Color of Drinking

Making Real Change at the University of Wisconsin Using Student Data

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Reonda Washington, MPH, CHES understands the value of data and insights in tackling the biggest obstacles as part of her alcohol education and prevention work at University Health Services. Her institution is predominantly white in demographic composition and, based on campus-level data, has a pervasive drinking culture that undergraduate students are particularly susceptible to. Several factors play into the culture of alcohol use including the state of Wisconsin reporting the second highest binge drinking rate for 18–44 year olds in the U.S. and ranking in the top five states for lowest alcohol taxes on spirits, wine, and beer. Further, the alcohol outlet density is 375 within a three mile radius of UW–Madison campus.

For years, UW-Madison has partnered with EVERFI to provide alcohol education using theAlcoholEdu for College program with their incoming student population. AlcoholEdu is one of several approaches taken in an effort to reduce high-risk alcohol use by students and particularly to mitigate the “College Effect,” found in matriculating first-year students who tend to greatly increase their alcohol intake within their first few weeks on campus. Reonda and her team have been voracious consumers of the survey data collected through our learning platform and she employs those insights to address trends in college alcohol abuse and evaluate the impact of alcohol prevention efforts on campus. Specifically, the data points have been used to inform The First 45 Days Initiative, launched in 2014. This initiative is designed to help mitigate the effects of drinking on college students by helping them to establish healthy habits during their first 7 weeks on campus through providing consistent messaging regarding alcohol use, alcohol-free events, and other wellness-related initiatives.

Using College Drinking Statistics to Improve Alcohol Education

In 2015, in an effort to promote diversity and inclusion on their campus, administrators and researchers at the University of Wisconsin – Madison worked together to study the impact of their school’s drinking culture on students of color compared to their White/Caucasian peers. In their Color of Drinking study, they surveyed the alcohol consumption among college students, their perceptions of the campus environment, and connectedness to the university.

Researchers found that students of color reported the lowest drinking rates, but were the most likely to have negative experiences as a result of the drinking culture on campus. Nearly half of students of color reported experiencing racial aggression from students who were drinking on their campus. Further, 65% of these students said that their college’s drinking culture negatively impacted their college experience including their academic success, social interactions, and sense of safety and comfort.

A continuation of this exploratory Color of Drinking study was conducted in the Fall of 2017, collecting quantitative and qualitative data from over 1,000 students of color at UW-Madison and over 300 white students. Respondents were asked to describe their school’s  drinking cultureand the impact it has had on their academic success and feelings of safety and belonging on campus. They were also asked about their experiences with microaggressions and 62% of students of color reported being subjected to hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights or insults. The study also found that African American/Black students were 3 times more likely to have considered leaving the university and cited the racial climate as the number one reason. Further, both students of color and white students reported avoiding two specific areas on campus due to concerns about alcohol use, including fraternity and sorority housing. Qualitative data showed that students of color and white students described the drinking culture very differently and the former were much more negatively impacted by the alcohol use of other students on campus.

Thankfully, Reonda states that all of this data and research have finally gotten alcohol prevention on the radar of faculty, staff, and administration at UW-Madison. This includes commitments and collaboration from the University of Wisconsin Police Department (additional patrolling of high-risk environments during The First 45 Days), The Center for Leadership and Involvement, and an assortment of other student services on campus in hosting alcohol-free events. While the drinking culture and its impact on student success has long been an issue for UW-Madison, providing data points and personal stories from students triggered real change and cooperation across the campus that may not have been achievable otherwise.

If you are interested in learning more about Reonda and her team’s efforts to employ data in their prevention efforts, make sure to register for the 2019 Campus Prevention Network Summit as she will be speaking about her experience and EVERFI will be sharing strategies for using data for practical problem-solving.