Underage Drinking & the Law

What parents need to know now about the new Social Host Laws

1992-2010 Trends in Alcohol Use by College Students

It’s important to recognize that the college student data below from Monitoring the Future includes students who are legally allowed to drink because they are 21 or older. We can assume that approximately one-quarter of the respondents are of age. Therefore, more students are expected to answer “Yes” when asked if they have had alcohol.

Past month use. However, it’s the high degree of inconsistency in the year-to-year data that surprises researchers, especially looking at recent alcohol use (last 30 days). Not only is there no clear trend; looking at the graph below, you can see that there’s no correlation even within a single year. Visually, the hills and valleys of “any use” and drunkenness go up or down without any regard for each other. For example, in 2006 we see the largest number of college students answering “Yes” when asked if they have ever been drunk. However, the percentage of college students saying they have had at least a few sips of alcohol in the past month is close to the lowest response that same year. Is the data flawed, are the inconsistencies due to a lack of consistent programs at the college level, or have we reached a natural plateau?


Past year use. Although the radical year-to-year swings of 30-day use are closer to gentle swells when we examine the percentage of annual alcohol use and abuse, the same questions arise. There is a relatively gentle decline over the past two decades in the percentage of college students who agree they have had some alcohol in the past twelve months, but no one is satisfied with how tiny the difference is. And we’re not lost in flights of fancy when we say the up-and-down year-to-year movement of annual “been drunk” rates have us a bit seasick. Why don’t the middle-school and high-school programs’ messages stick? Obviously, our efforts are missing some key element.

Lifetime use. The only lasting positive impact seems to be on lifetime alcohol use and abuse among college students. Here we can easily see a significant – and relatively steady – decline in the percentage of students who say they have ever drank or been drunk. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that over two-thirds of college students have gotten drunk at sometime in their lives.

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