Drinking is an integral part of the college experience — or so you may think. Students who do might fall victim to a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy, when the expectation to drink large amounts causes one to do exactly that.
It’s clear enough that drinking isn’t without consequences: Although some might only want to get buzzed, those that end up drinking irresponsibly inevitably risk their mental and physical health. For instance, alcohol impairs judgement and cognitive function, increasing the chance of them making irrational decisions like drinking and driving, as well as interfering with much-needed sleep and academic performance. In fact, research shows that students still continue consuming alcohol despite experiencing these negative consequences, making additional action necessary to address overdrinking.
Problematically, the obvious brute force solutions like banning alcohol don’t always work. If students want to drink, they will find ways to do so — and once alcohol access is severely restricted, the subsequent increase in underground drinking becomes even harder to address. Instead, it’s important to delve into the motivations and environments that cultivate an excessive drinking culture in order to encourage students to drink more responsibly, even when alcohol is highly accessible.
It’s easy to assume that students only drink because they want to, but unfortunately, that’s only partially the case. Though some do resort to alcohol as a temporary escape from their problems or to loosen up before social events, many others are motivated by social pressures. Whether it’s through listening to others glorify drunkenness or through the portrayal of youth drinking in mainstream media, many students come into college believing that they’re expected to embrace alcohol.
With this knowledge, addressing college drinking culture is critical: By breaking down the social expectation to drink in college, students are more likely to only drink because they want to, not because they think others expect them to.
To do this, upperclassmen, especially mentor figures, play a big role. Since newcomers are unfamiliar with the college culture, they often look to older students to set an example. As a result, at colleges with upperclassmen mentoring programs that specifically discuss alcohol use, risky drinking has declined — an indicator that older students are highly influential in determining underclassmen drinking behavior. Many of the 5Cs also have mentoring programs pairing groups of freshmen with dedicated upperclassmen leaders, creating opportunities to shape student perceptions. Older students on campus should reassure students that drinking isn’t necessary to have fun, and staying sober is just as socially acceptable.
Outside of alcohol-related discourse, the physical manifestations of drinking culture also contribute to students’ expectations as they start their college experience. At Harvey Mudd College, parties are often centered around a couple pong tables within a residence hall courtyard, establishing drinking games as the main attraction. The effect of observing drinking on actual drinking behavior is well proven; studies show that alcohol-related social media posts directly increase alcohol use in others. Thus, it’s no surprise that watching drinking games increases the pressure on students to drink.
Solutions are in sight, though: At HMC, modified drinking games using water or seltzer are normalized, allowing sober students to get in on the fun without feeling ostracized. In general, similar methods of expanding the scope of party activities beyond alcohol-related games is likely to reduce the perceived pressure on students to drink, while also allowing nondrinkers to meaningfully engage with each other. There are a handful of alcohol-free parties at HMC, working towards severing the link between alcohol and parties.
Ultimately, after graduating high school, many students’ relationship with alcohol changes, as the new and unfamiliar freedom gives them a chance to experiment and explore. To prevent social pressure from playing a part in students’ decisions, upperclassmen can take initiative in setting healthy norms while administrators ensure parties are accessible and enjoyable.
With red Solo cups littered in courtyards after Friday night parties and pong tables permanently stationed outside residence halls, it’s hard to hide from alcohol’s influence on campus — but if colleges take the right steps to shift drinking culture, we can at least avoid its most damaging risks.
Serena Mao HM ’25 is from Fremont, California. She’s not sure if she doesn’t like beer pong or is just bad at it.