When asked why they drink to excess, many college students claim that “there’s nothing else to do.” In response, many campuses make concerted efforts to provide an array of alcohol-free social, recreational, and other options for students. Alcohol-free activities are an important piece of a comprehensive approach to prevention not only because they provide a healthy alternative to drinking, but they also help to promote a healthy environment on campus and reinforce students’ healthy decisions to not drink alcohol. At the same time, providing these options can alleviate the stress of non-drinkers by providing social outlets that don’t revolve around alcohol.
What are alcohol-free options?
Alcohol-free options are activities offered to students that don’t involve the consumption of alcohol. Many campuses host late-night social events, such as dances, movie nights, and concerts to provide an alternative during the times students commonly drink to excess. For example, Penn State has a program called “LateNight-Penn State” that offers students substance-free entertainment on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Activities vary from crafts, to swing and salsa dances, to table tennis and magic shows. Details of the program can be found at http://www.latenight.psu.edu/.
Another popular late-night event is the midnight breakfast. West Virginia University’s program, “WVUp All Night,” provides late-night free food and entertainment and also hosts midnight breakfasts on Friday and Saturday nights until 2 a.m. (Anderson & Milgram, 2001).
Late-night programs are often run by student organizations and are marketed through posters, flyers, or mass emails. Events can also be introduced to first-year students during orientation and promoted throughout the year by residence assistants. Finding locations for the events can be challenging, yet many institutions utilize their student union for such events.
Aside from offering late-night programming, many campuses offer other activities to deter students from alcohol consumption, such as extending library hours on the weekend, organizing community service outings, or arranging daytime activities, such as athletic games. Activities can be intentionally planned around any campus-wide events or periods of time when problematic drinking has been known to take place. For example, in 1997 the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) began to host an alcohol-free street festival called “Fall Fest” in order to combat the problem of high-risk drinking on the Sunday before classes begin (“Prevention Updates,” 1998).
Through program evaluations, many campuses have found participants in late night programming to have less problematic behaviors. For example, Penn State found that their late night participants were significantly less likely to binge drink (Maney et al., 2002). Similarly, the University of Michigan found that attendees of “UMix Late Night” drank less than the general student population (Robinson & Janevic, 2008). Although such findings are encouraging, it is difficult to attribute such behaviors to the late night programming itself, for often those who attend are the lighter drinkers or abstainers.
However, the research does suggest that attending and enjoying a substance-free event may motivate problematic drinkers to change their behavior (Murphy et al., 2007). The challenge is getting drinkers to attend and enjoy themselves at such events. Yet, not all students are averse to attending events without alcohol. The University of Michigan found that more than two-thirds of potential attendees of their program didn’t see the lack of availability of alcohol as a barrier to attending (Robinson & Janevic, 2008).
It is clear that substance-free options offer benefits to non-drinking students. Students may feel reinforced in their decisions not to drink by being surrounded with students who share their attitudes towards drinking.
Providing alcohol-free options also benefits the institution. Research has found a correlation between providing alcohol-free events and reduced incidences involving alcohol, such as arrests or acts of vandalism. For example, UNC found that on the night of “Fall Fest,” there was a significant reduction in alcohol-related urgent care visits as compared to the same evening the previous year (“Prevention Updates”, 1998).
Issues and considerations
There is much to consider when budgeting for alcohol-free events. A campus should budget for some of the following: rental space, food, entertainment, prizes, and promotional materials. For example, North Dakota State University spends between $900 and $2000 per event for items such as drink mixers, food, having a law enforcement officer present, publicity, a DJ and prizes (Vangsness & Oster-Aaland, 2009).
However, there are ways to save on costs. For example, a campus can utilize peer educators or student leaders to organize and promote programming. And using online promotion, such as sending mass emails or creating listervs, can cut back on associated promotional costs. A university or college would also benefit from surveying students on their interests or preferred activities before investing resources. Events can also be coordinated with student groups or clubs who may already have funds in place for such activities—this is a great way to share the expenses for an activity.
It makes strategic sense to take advantage of events or activities that are already in place on a campus or in the surrounding community. A campus can actively market the events already in place on campus as a means of supporting the healthy decisions of light to moderate drinkers, and promoting an environment that supports healthy norms.
Finally, it is recommended that campuses evaluate their alcohol-free programming. Tracking student attendance and distributing surveys or running focus groups to get student feedback will help inform any future occasions. Although it is challenging to assess an event’s impact on student drinking, an institution can examine a number of indirect measures of drinking, such as reported alcohol violations, incidences of vandalism, noise complaints, or alcohol sales on the day or evening of an event.
Anderson, D.S. & Milgram, G.G. (2001). Targeted Audiences. In Sourcebook Promising Practices: Campus Alcohol Strategies. Retrieved April 3, 2009 from http://www.promprac.gmu.edu/2001book/Targeted.pdf.
Late Night Penn State (2009). Retrieved June 17, 2009 from http://www.latenight.psu.edu/.
Maney, D. W., Mortensen, S., Powell, M. P., Lozinska-Lee, M., Kennedy, S., & Moore, B. (2002). Alcohol-free alternative activities for university students: Modeling associated drinking behavior. American Journal of Health Education, 33(4), 225–233.
Murphy, J. G., Barnett, N. P., Goldstein, A. L., & Colby, S. M. (2007). Gender moderates the relationship between substance-free activity enjoyment and alcohol use. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 21(2), 261-265.
Prevention Updates (1998). The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention.
Robinson, K & Janevic, M. (2008). Campus studies late-night program’s ability to reduce student alcohol abuse. The Bulletin, 76 (5). Retrieved April 8, 2009 from http://www.acui.org/publications/bulletin/article.aspx?issue=704&id=7724.
Vangsness, J. & Oster-Aaland, L (2009, January). Club NSDU: Assessing the Effectiveness of Late-Night Programming Through Direct and Indirect Measures. NASPA Strategies Conference 2009: Alcohol Abuse Prevention and Intervention.