Cal Poly students who consistently drink are largely doing it off-campus at private homes or apartments. More than half of them are underage, and many of them admit to binge drinking.
A survey in the fall of Cal Poly students also shows that the number of students binge drinking in a two-week period — which translates into five or more drinks for males and four or more drinks for females at one time — is about 39 percent.
Although the number of students who admit to binge drinking has fluctuated by 10 percentage points in the past six years, it has never dropped below 39 percent. It appears to have essentially remained the same, despite efforts by the university.
“When looking at this data, we would have hoped for a bigger drop in binge drinking” given all the programs that the university has long had in place, said Marty Bragg, director of health and counseling services at Cal Poly.
Since 2004, the number of students who admitted to binge drinking in the two weeks before being surveyed went from 39 percent to nearly 50 percent in 2005, and then dropped in slow increments back to 39 percent in 2010.
University officials are optimistic that relatively recent ordinances adopted by the city of San Luis Obispo and more focused efforts by Cal Poly will help reduce students drinking excessively.
The 2010-11 survey is part of a larger study funded by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to identify effective tools in preventing heavy drinking by college students. Each fall semester, the online survey is given to about 1,000 undergraduates.
Cal Poly is one of 14 campuses in the University of California and CSU systems participating in the Safer California Universities study by the Prevention Research Center in Berkeley.
The survey was initiated at campuses in 2003. In 2005-06, specific prevention methods and interventions were introduced at half of the campuses. Researchers then compared the results there to those colleges without the interventions and found that the interventions decreased the number of students drinking to the point of intoxication at off-campus parties — the predominant problem at most colleges — by 9 percent.
Cal Poly was one of the seven college campuses that did not initially receive the interventions, which included nuisance party enforcement, minor decoy operations, social host ordinances and DUI checkpoints.
Locally, an array of laws passed by the San Luis Obispo City Council since 2009 at the urging of Police Chief Deborah Linden mimic those interventions by seeking to curb partying, noise and underage drinking.
The laws include steep fines for people who host parties where minors drink; double fines for violations such as nudity, public urination and possession of open containers of alcohol in public places on known party holidays; and fines to hosts of parties of 20 or more people that create a substantial disturbance.
Overall, “the findings we have give us optimism that intervention will be effective,” said Rick McGaffigan, program director of the Prevention Research Center. “We assume that colleges doing the same preventions that have worked at other campuses will have the same results.”
At Cal Poly, Bragg said the survey information is used by administrators to help track prevention techniques and determine where funding should be spent.
“The target for all of our messaging is not abstinence — it is binge drinking,” he said. “Instead of trying to come up with clever posters or motivational speakers, we are trying to address high-risk drinking and its outcomes.”
Studies have linked excessive drinking by college students to death, injuries, assaults and sexual assaults — making binge drinking a top concern at colleges nationwide.
“Alcohol is the bane of university communities across the nation,” Bragg said. “That said, we also know that drinking is normative behavior with students coming to college expecting that a large part of their experience will be drinking and socializing.”
Bragg said partnering between the city and the college is an essential component.
Efforts now include partnering with the San Luis Obispo Police Department and the CHP to do several DUI checkpoints, including some on campus, and party patrols. Minor decoy programs are also in place.
The university also put increased effort into educating students about the various laws focused on excessive partying and noise — such as placing 5,000 door hangers in surrounding neighborhoods notifying students of the laws and placing ads in the school newspaper.
“What we do know from campuses is that the more visibility they had and the more enforcement they promoted — the more dosage if you will — the higher the effect,” McGaffigan said. “More is better.”
The data from the survey, Bragg said, has driven the university to better focus its prevention efforts.
“It is my belief that this kind of community effort is really critical because you can’t educate kids out of alcohol abuse — it is just too much a part of their conceptualization of what college life is about.”
39.2% of Cal Poly students had reported binge drinking (4 to 5 drinks in one sitting) in the past two weeks.
71.7% consumed alcohol in the past 30 days.
58% of those who consumed alcohol in the past 30 days were underage.