The True Cost of Alcohol Abuse on College Campuses: Redefining Campus Culture through Prevention Education

As drinking rates among American college students continue to decline, high-risk drinking remains a challenge for college administrators, making prevention education even more necessary to protect students. Beyond the clear harms associated with high-risk drinking, it’s important to explore how and where alcohol is hitting campuses hardest – financially.

There are significant costs associated with disproportionately directing time, energy, and resources reacting to drinking behavior instead of addressing the root causes through college drinking prevention education. Many institutions of higher education have yet to meaningfully invest in prevention measures and take advantage of the positive trends among incoming students to change campus drinking culture, and the implications are costly in a number of ways. Institutions who are not asking themselves “why do college students drink in dangerous and high-risk ways?” will have difficulty understanding how to best protect their students.  

In addition to the resounding mission of academic excellence and student development in higher education, rising costs and questions of value have elevated the focus on brand management, enrollment, and retention. Each of these strategic imperatives can be tied to student drinking, and warrant a more proactive investment in college drinking prevention education.

Alcohol-related attrition is a real issue institutions face, but there is limited research in this area. Based on a government white paper and interviews with leading with college administrators, EVERFI conservatively estimates that 15% of attrition can be tied to alcohol. A campus of 10,000 students with a 20% attrition rate (15% of that related to alcohol), and a net tuition of $15,000 (assuming 5% annual inflation) could stand to lose up to $4.1 million in revenue over a four-year period. The average alcohol prevention budget for a college campus is $42,941 per year.

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And it’s not just the constant partiers we risk losing. A heavy-drinking culture on campus can drive away students who choose not to use alcohol, and who may also happen to be some of our best and brightest. And these non-drinking students are on the rise. Longitudinal data on high school drinking rates from Monitoring the Future (MTF) and survey responses from hundreds of thousands of first-year students that complete EVERFI’s AlcoholEdu program prior to their arrival on college campus each year identify significant increases in non-drinkers. In fact, since 1991 there has been a 100% increase in the percent of high school seniors reporting no drinking in the last year.

high school and drinking trend chart

Research demonstrates that high-risk drinking also impacts many facets of academic performance, which is a key driver of retention. Class attendance and time spent studying are negatively impacted by high-risk drinking. EVERFI’s AlcoholEdu data reveals a positive correlation between the number of drinks consumed and the number of classes missed. Published research also clearly demonstrates the inverse relationship between high-risk drinking and grade point average, with the heaviest drinkers obtaining the lowest grades. This is why it is important for institutions to take responsibility, by asking the critical question “why do college students drink in high-risk ways?” and using the answers to develop programs for students that will  empower them and help drive their success. 

Of course, there are the “work hard/play hard” schools that do not appear to have a retention issue, but if students can drink heavily and ace their economics exam the next day, hungover, it begs the question of how much better these students could perform if they were not hungover. It also speaks to the quality of the academic experience that students are having: are they actively engaged in learning and inquiry, or solely focused on doing what they need to pass exams, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their social life. Have institutions’ academics standards and expectations been lowered to enable this level of high—but not peak—performance? Has the ‘student as consumer’ shift in higher education contributed to coddling in the classroom? What expectation does this set for when these students graduate and enter the workforce?

Alcohol-related costs to an institution go beyond the expenditures of replacing a student who leaves. There is staff time dedicated to alcohol-related cases. There is money being spent on issues related to alcohol by counseling services. EVERFI research found that counselors report spending an average of 10 – 20% of their time with alcohol-related cases. Student conduct officers report spending approximately 75 – 85% of their time handling with alcohol-related cases. Public safety professionals are reportedly  spending between 10 – 20% of their time on addressing alcohol-related threats and complaints. Medical professionals are relied upon when students are harmed as a result of their own or others’ drinking, creating avoidable health care expenditures. Finally, there are non-billable costs associated with alcohol-related property damage. For an average public institution with 10,000 students, all of these institutional costs related to alcohol could total more than $600,000 each year. The average alcohol prevention specialist earns $38,202 per year.

Not only does high-risk college student drinking impact institutional priorities, but when people drink in a high-risk way when they are under 21, they are more likely to be heavy drinkers later in life and experience ongoing health and safety problems that affect them, their families, their jobs, and their long-term health outcomes.

How can institutions of higher education contribute to mitigating the harms and costs associated with alcohol? To start, there is a tremendous need for greater investment in college drinking prevention-related funding and staff. With more resources, colleges and universities can institute the rigorous, population-level prevention trainings necessary throughout a student’s tenure to teach critical skills and correct misperceptions that overestimate drinking-related norms. Campus administrators can reinforce the healthy habits of incoming students by creating social networks and shared spaces to build community and reinforce positive behaviors for those that do not drink. Providing students with alcohol-free events, activities, and social environments can detract from high-risk behaviors by creating attractive alternatives to drinking. Additionally, strong alcohol policies that are widely communicated and consistently enforced can send an important message about institutional values and expectations.

Public health research shows that every dollar put towards community-based prevention has an ROI of $5.60 (460%). The most forward-thinking schools are getting ahead of the unnecessary costs and liabilities associated with college student drinking, using data to inform proactive programs and policies that help students make a successful transition not only to college but to life after graduation.