New data on undergraduate alcohol consumption suggests that freshman drinking rates have dropped a year after the controversial restriction on hard alcohol was first introduced.
Since fall 2016, the latest iteration of Stanford’s alcohol policy has seen a year of mixed reactions and uneven implementation, but administrators and resident assistants (RAs) say it may have contributed to a shift in the culture of alcohol consumption among undergraduates on campus. There were fewer alcohol-related arrests and transports in 2016, and freshmen who arrived that fall reported less pregaming and consumption of hard alcohol than previous freshman classes.
But administrators and students agreed that long-term changes in campus drinking culture and the extent to which the alcohol policy was responsible for these changes remain to be seen.
Alcohol policy development
Stanford’s current alcohol policy bans alcohol containers larger than 750 milliliters (mL) in undergraduate housing, including rooms and common spaces, as well as in any public areas on campus. In addition, all undergraduate on-campus parties are banned from serving hard alcohol and may only offer beer and wine.
According to Ralph Castro, the Associate Dean of Students & Director for Stanford’s Office of Alcohol Policy and Education (OAPE), the process began as a study by the Alcohol Advisory Board in 2012. The first efforts to alter campus drinking culture involved alcohol-free social events such as Cardinal Nights. Though these programs were popular, they did nothing to decrease hard alcohol consumption on campus, said Castro.
In response, Castro and OAPE developed the alcohol policy that went into effect fall 2016 as an alternative solution. University statistics for 2011-2016 showed that 95 percent of alcohol transports on campus to were related to hard alcohol consumption, leading OAPE to turn their attention to hard alcohol in particular.
The new policy was based on a combination of two studies showing that increasing costs and restricting availability could decrease alcohol consumption, said Castro. Since Stanford could not prevent hard alcohol sales, OAPE decided to target the size of the alcohol container.
“By limiting container size we were able to influence the availability,” Castro said, explaining that many nearby stores do not sell alcohol in containers smaller than 750 mL in high quantities. Castro also said that the slightly higher costs for these smaller containers could disincentivize drinking hard alcohol in large amounts.
Though other universities have banned hard alcohol, Castro said that was never a serious consideration at Stanford.
“I’m not a fan of prohibition. I know prohibition doesn’t work,” Castro says. “I’m a fan of sensible policy that is informed by research and specific to our culture [on campus].”
Reactions and enforcement
Since its introduction, the policy has met with resistance from many students. Elisa Hofmeister ’18, who was a RA in all-freshman residence Cedro last year, said that the initial roll out was unpopular among student staff members, many of whom were hired before the new alcohol policy was implemented.
“I think the largest impact the alcohol ban had on our staff experience was during staff training,” Hofmeister said. “It was [combative] in a lot of the sessions, and we felt fairly mistrustful of the administration and its intentions.”
Hofmeister added that residence staff often did not enforce the new alcohol policy in a uniform way for the rest of the academic year.
“Once training was over, things were a lot less dramatic,” Hofmeister said. “Most houses chose their own way to interpret the ban, and it didn’t really change anything about how we went about creating a freshman dorm community.”
While the policy technically applies to all undergraduates, OAPE intended it to focus specifically on freshman, who tend to be more novice drinkers.
“They need some time to mature into the social scene on campus,” Castro explained.
Freshmen tend to exhibit markedly different drinking habits than older undergraduate students, differences which are reflected in the alcohol policy’s focus on hard alcohol. According to an University survey in 2015, freshman choose to take shots more often than upperclassmen, with 43 percent of freshmen who drank listing shots of liquor as their drink of choice. By contrast, upperclassmen favored beer and wine, with only 6 percent of juniors and seniors preferring shots.
Jamieson O’Marr ’18, a freshman RA in Twain last year, said that drinking habits in the dorm appeared to have changed from his freshman year.
“I did see just a different style of drinking in the dorm,” O’Marr said “I would say the level or amount of people participating did not decrease, but even though the rule was not strictly enforced, the amount of handles that I saw compared to our freshman year was reduced.”
According to O’Marr, the container policy did not reduce transparency or affect the staff’s relationships with their residents in Twain.
“I did not feel like the residents were trying to hide anything from me even if hard alcohol was involved,” O’Marr said. “We made it very clear at the beginning of the year that we valued safety above all else.”
Castro stressed the importance of the dorm staff’s role in maintaining conversations around drinking and dorm culture.
“We expect student staff to be educators in the moment when they see something that may be causing harm,” Castro said.
Sarah Radzihovsky ’18, who staffed in four-class residence Florence Moore Hall (FloMo) last year, said that practices like the long-standing open door policy — which encourages residents to keep their doors open while drinking in their rooms — allowed allowed staff members to have more effective conversations about safety and keep their residents out of harm.
“With trust and open doors, we always had the ability to collect all the information about a situation just by walking by a room,” Radzihovsky said. “[Staff members] could more easily assess if something had to be done or someone had to be monitored, than if [our residents] viewed us as RAs who were there to get them in trouble rather than to keep them safe.”
Hofmeister said that each dorm approached the revised policy from different perspectives, but that in her experience, changes did lead to more dialogue amongst staff.
“It forced us to have conversations around decreasing dangerous drinking as a result of that extra pressure [from the administration],” Hofmeister said. “I think that was positive.”
According to a current freshman who wishes to remain anonymous, drinking remains a part of freshman dorm culture, especially on weekends.
“There is usually hard alcohol and beer in some of the dorm rooms on the weekends,” the freshman said. “There are also pregames every weekend so far, and some Thursdays.”
Changes in Behavior
Despite the fact that several dorms did not enforce the alcohol policy to the letter, a majority of students do appear to follow its regulations. 54 percent of students reported that they always follow the policy, but only 13 percent believed that others did.
Castro explains that these beliefs are crucial to the success of the alcohol policy.
“People’s behavioral intentions can be brought in alignment with their values and the norms within a culture, that can produce positive outcomes,” he said.
According to Stanford’s newly released 2017 Safety, Security and Fire Report, there has been a decline in alcohol-related arrests. In 2015, there were 70 reported instances, while 2016 had 62. The number of emergency transports also decreased to 39 cases — a 33 percent drop from the average of the past five years of 58.6 incidents annually.
While 78 percent of the class of 2019 disclosed in the University’s 2015 survey that they pregamed freshman year, only 63 percent of the class of 2020 reported pregaming. Specifically, 79 percent of the class of 2019 stated that they took shots of hard alcohol, but this percentage declined to 64 percent for the class of 2020, which marks a drop of 20 percent since the new alcohol policy went into effect. However, according to the report, upperclassmen behavior has not altered greatly.
Though these numbers are promising, they may not be a direct cause of the revised policy. In fact, Castro said that the alcohol policy only constitutes a part of OAPE’s overarching strategy to make campus drinking culture healthier.
“Some of these changes that we may be seeing, or not seeing, could be influenced by other factors,” Castro explains. “The policy is just one piece of larger initiative.”
O’Marr agreed with Castro’s assessment and was reluctant to credit the shifts in drinking culture that he witnessed in Twain purely to the new alcohol policy.
“There were a lot of positive changes that I witnessed [as an RA] that could be attributed to the policy, but also could be attributed to other changes and education and things of that nature,” said O’Marr.
Two other major areas that OAPE focuses on are programs and education. One such program is 5-SURE, which offers free rides, walks home, snacks and water to students on campus. 800 students used the 5-SURE on Foot Resources, including walks home, food and snacks, the first weekend of fall 2017 alone. There was also a 32 percent increase in total calls to the 5-SURE Safe Rides Program between the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years.
Cardinal Nights, another program run by OAPE, has also become more popular — there was a 25 percent increase in attendance at Cardinal Nights programming between the the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 academic years.
Thus far, over 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students have received online alcohol- and drug-related education.
According to Castro, Stanford will not be able to fully determine the efficacy of the new policy until they have collected another two years of data.
“Anytime you’re making a large-scale population level change, it’s going to take time in order to see change,” Castro explained. “It’s an ongoing assessment.”
He added that the university will be looking “not only statistically in the data, but also culturally in the drinking around campus.”
For the foreseeable future, the current policy will remain in place as it is.
“There is nothing on the horizon for future changes on this,” Castro said. “For our campus, this [new policy] was a huge change in how we do things, and we want time to assess this to see how it shifts our campus culture.”
Castro also made clear that despite the best efforts of the administration and its policies, it is ultimately the responsibility of students on campus to shape how drinking and alcohol are used and perceived.
“The drinking culture belongs to the students,” he explained. “It isn’t really the administration’s role to regulate what happens. It’s really about students making good choices and keeping each other accountable.”