Substance-free residence halls have risen in popularity, and can be an important way for a campus to demonstrate support of students’ healthy behaviors and choices. Based on a survey of the research, however, it is difficult to determine whether substance-free housing produces behavior change for students. This is in part due to the fact that many students decide to live in these environments for personal or religious reasons. Therefore, it is not easy to tell if the environment is influencing students’ personal drinking behaviors, or whether students with preexisting healthy behaviors are self-selecting into them. Some anecdotal reports suggest that parents may opt for their student to live in a substance-free residence when the student might have chosen otherwise.
What are substance-free residences?
There are a variety of ways that campuses establish substance-free living arrangements. While some refer to specific halls as “alcohol-free,” others broaden the designation to “substance-free” or “wellness” housing or suites. Northeastern University has four wellness living-learning programs that incorporate associated programming around issues that include nutrition, fitness, and stress reduction. Some campuses claim that, in effect, all their residences are alcohol-free due to their “dry campus” policy. To fail to distinguish one hall from another on this measure may be inadequate to change students’ behavior, or to support their healthier decision-making. Increasingly, on the other extreme, campuses that include Ohio State University, Augsburg, Texas Tech, Penn, Case Western Reserve, and Rutgers have established residences specifically for students in recovery.
What is clear from the research is that substance-free housing helps protect students from the many secondhand effects of drinking experienced in residence halls, such as sleep and study disruption and the damage and destruction of campus and personal property. The research also indicates that substance-free housing tends to increase student residents’ overall satisfaction with college and may thus increase their rates of retention.
There are many additional benefits of substance-free living. Specifically, substance-free housing can reduce institutional costs associated with high-risk drinking. For example, the research suggests that insurance rates may be lower for substance-free dorms and halls, and there may be commensurate reductions in vandalism and property damage.
Issues and considerations
Substance-free living arrangements present challenges related to enforcement. A campus may experience an increase in students selecting to live in these settings, but how is one to know whether they are truly committed to a healthy lifestyle, or whether they simply enjoy quieter, cleaner living quarters? To help ensure that students abide by the “substance-free” designation, some campuses require residents to sign a pledge of sobriety, which may help students maintain their commitment to these arrangements. With a modest amount of enforcement, this policy can help hold students accountable to supporting and reinforcing a healthier residential environment.
Research on the enforcement of substance-free living for fraternity members demonstrates that, while it may not impact personal drinking behaviors (i.e., it may simply shift drinking to other locations), it may increase member satisfaction and academic achievement. As with substance-free housing arrangements for other students, such housing may decrease insurance costs and claims for fraternities.