Alumni: Using Their Power for Good
Alumni can be a powerful force in setting students' expectations about college behavior. But, they can be a mixed blessing for your alcohol, drug, and sexual violence prevention programs -- especially if you're trying to change a campus culture.
Research has established that students' perception of how much drinking is appropriate influences how much they drink, and alumni are one source of those perceptions. Students form their ideas about college life even before they arrive on campus, in part from stories told by graduates. If your alumni have fond memories of alcohol-fueled blackouts or brushes with the law, they can help perpetuate party-school expectations among prospective and new students.
Alumni also attend, and contribute to the atmosphere at, events that can be focal points for increased student drinking, such as sporting events, fraternity and sorority gatherings, Homecoming, and graduation. If they use these events as occasions to relive their memories of drug and alcohol abuse, their behavior can reinforce the perception among undergraduates that substance abuse is part of normal adult life.
Although their role as donors and potential donors often makes college officials, especially those in the development office, urge special treatment for alumni, exempting them from campus rules sends a message to undergraduates that may undermine the school's drug and alcohol policies.
Bring Alumni Into Your Prevention Programming
Just as the majority of college students drink moderately, the majority of adults drink moderately as well. Of current adult drinkers in the United States, 11% are frequent binge drinkers (three or more episodes in past month) and 14% are infrequent binge drinkers (one to two episodes in past month). The highest rates of binge drinking (defined as five or more drinks in one session in the month before the survey) are among adults aged 18 to 20 (30%) and 21 to 25 (27%), who may still be in college or are recent graduates. The rate drops to 15% for those aged 26 to 34, and to 12% for those aged 35 to 54. For U.S. drinkers over 55, the rate of binge drinking is 6%. About half of U.S. adults do not drink alcohol.
These numbers suggest that you can include alumni in your campus prevention policies without alienating them. Communication and participation will help build support with this influential group. If your college has a task force to develop or revise its alcohol policy, reach out to active alumni for their opinions and include alumni representation on the task force. If Greek-letter organizations are an important part of campus life, make sure you involve alumni from those groups in the decision-making.
Communicate to alumni that the seriousness of alcohol and drug use—and its consequences—may have increased since they were undergrads. Draw on recent medical findings about the development of the brain during young adulthood (through age 25), the connection between early drug and alcohol use and health and behavioral problems later in life, and the increase in high-risk drinking among college students to make your point.
Also communicate any new drug and alcohol policies both before and after they're adopted, in letters to alumni, alumni publications, and event announcements. If your policies about alcohol change what is permitted at sporting events or sorority and fraternity events where alumni participate, make sure the new rules are spelled out in the invitations and promotional materials. Be explicit about whether the policy applies to alumni, and how you will enforce it against them.
Some Messages for Alumni
- You represent your alma mater. Don't glorify your drinking behavior when talking to prospective students. Talk about the ways in which your school prepared you for a meaningful life and success in the workplace.
- Drug and alcohol abuse in college have serious consequences for today's students. Even if you enjoyed your party years, students who engage in high-risk behavior are more likely to suffer academic, health, and professional problems that affect the rest of their lives.
- Support alcohol and drug policy reform on campus, even if that means you can no longer drink at college events yourself. It's a small price to pay for protecting the health of the next generation of students.
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