College & Alcohol

Exposure to alcohol may not be entirely new for college-bound students—in fact a 2011 national survey showed:

  • Most (70.8%) high-school students had tried alcohol and
  • Nearly a quarter (21.9%) had drunk to excess in the past month 1

What a Parent Can Do:

Start talking — Even before your adolescent heads to campus, start the conversation about alcohol and what a college-student might encounter. Helping anticipate difficult situations may help your teen to make better decisions in the moment. (See our conversation-tips below).

Go to Parents’ Weekend — Many colleges host a visiting weekend for parents during the fall semester. It is a wonderful opportunity for you to get to know your college-student’s living situation, meet his or her friends, peers, and mentors, and understand more about the school dynamic and social life.

Understand school policy — Most schools have a written alcohol policy, and many schools host meetings for parents specifically addressing issues of campus safety and alcohol policy. Take the time to attend this event and then to discuss it with your college-student. Know that some schools handle alcohol-related infractions internally, while others may involve local law enforcement.

Ask for a tour — Ask your college-student to show you around his or her dorm or apartment, campus, and favorite hangouts so that you are more familiar with the surroundings and community.

Keep in touch — Start the conversation about drinking before your student heads to campus, and continue it periodically thereafter when you check-in by phone, email, or in person.

Know who to call — Know who you, as a parent, can contact if you become concerned about your child’s behavior or safety. The office of Freshman Affairs or Parent Resources may be good places to start.

Conversation Tips and Topics:

Let them know where you stand — As a parent, you are still one of the most important influences in your adolescent’s life, believe it or not. Whatever your expectations are, make them very clear.

Start the conversation in a safe zone — Begin by discussing celebrities, news stories, or hypothetical situations before turning to questions involving friends or own personal behaviors.

Use a respectful tone (don’t lecture!) — Nothing can turn off an adolescent struggling for independence like the feeling that they are being condescended to or spoken to “like a child.” As much as possible, let the conversation flow naturally and respectfully as give-and-take.

Emphasize safety — Rather than lecturing, focus the conversation around concrete outcomes like safety. For example:

  • When and how to call Campus Health or 911,
  • How to access a safe ride home, or
  • Strategies for resisting peer pressure.

Share frankly — If there is a family history of substance abuse, share this with your adolescent, so that they have the information to make good decisions for themselves. Discuss the increased risk family history may confer upon them.

Role play — Role playing or talking through situations in stress-free settings can positively influence decision making later when it counts. Touch on topics such as:

  • how to deal with peer-pressure,
  • recognizing when a friend is in danger,
  • knowing and setting limits,
  • reaching-out for help, etc.

Pay attention to feedback — If there are topics or issues your adolescent seems more engaged in, take advantage of their interest and spend the time focusing on these issues. You can always re-visit the conversation later to cover other topics you think are salient.

Questions to Ask:

  • What do you know about your school’s alcohol policy?
  • What would you do if you were at a party where there was drinking? What do your friends do in that situation?
  • What different kinds of alcohol are available on campus? Beer, wine, hard liquor?
  • How would you know when a friend has had too much to drink? What would you do in that situation?
  • What would you do if a friend passed-out when drinking?
  • What might make you think that alcohol was interfering with a friend’s academic performance, extra-curricular performance, friendships, or relationships? What would you do to try to help them?
  • What would you do if you were offered a ride home by someone who had been drinking alcohol?
  • What kinds of pictures or comments do you think are Facebook, Twitter, Instagram appropriate to post? Who might have access to this material that you would not want to see it? Have you thought about what happens photos when it comes time to interview?
  • How would you handle an initiation or hazing setting in which you were asked to drink more alcohol than you are comfortable drinking (which may be any at all!)?
  • How would you or your friends keep track of how many drinks you have consumed?

Alcohol Facts:

  • Alcohol use is common. It is used by more young people than tobacco or illicit drugs 2.
  • Alcohol-related problems include injuries, accidents, violence, unplanned or unprotected sexual activity, vandalism, drunk driving, poor school performance, and legal issues.
  • Binge-drinking is defined by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as drinking a large quantity of alcohol in a short period of time: five drinks in one sitting for males and four drinks in one sitting for females – enough to reach a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% 3.
  • Individuals who binge-drink are more likely to experience alcohol-related problems 4.
  • Binge drinking is most common among individuals 18-24 years old (28.2%) Approximately a quarter of high-school students (24.1%) have recently ridden in a car with a driver who has been drinking 1 and 8.2% had driven after drinking.
  • Alcohol is a factor in approximately 31% of deaths from motor vehicle accidents 6.


  1. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance, United States 2011. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012;59 (SS4).
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General, 2007.
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Moderate and Binge Drinking” Accessed Marach 28, 2013.
  4. Alcohol and Public Health: Frequently Asked Questions. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nov ember 7, 2012,
  5. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Vital Signs: Binge Drinking Prevalence, Frequency, and Intensity Among Adults — United States, 2010. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. January 13, 2012 / 61(01);14-19.
  6. Dept of Transportation (US), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Traffic Safety Facts 2010: Alcohol-Impaired Driving. Washington (DC): NHTSA; 2012