Drinking and Academic Performance

When an 18-year-old leaves for college the first semester many parents worry that their child will be overwhelmed by independence. They worry that drugs, sex and alcohol will be available at every turn for their student, and that their college experience will end quickly and disappointingly.

It turns out that one of those three dangers parents worry about may not be as indicative of a failed college experience as previously imagined. While underage drinking is certainly never recommended, recent research diminishes the connection between drinking and academic performance.

A new study by Thombs, Olds, Bondy, Winchell, Baliunas, and Rehm (2009) examines the association between drinking and academic performance for undergraduates. The study was conducted with repeated measures of exposure connected with academic records.

The alcohol data was collected in residence halls in a non-selective Midwestern public university. A total of 659 first- and second-year undergraduate students were tracked over the course of 15-week semesters.

The researchers examined several different alcohol indicators. They studied the frequency of breath alcohol concentration (BrAC) above .08, mean BrAC, standard deviation, and maximum BrAC recorded.

The results of the study show that there was a significantly negative association between the alcohol measures and academic performance. The associations remained statistically significant when controlled for sociodemographic variables, but the effect sizes were small. When the results were adjusted for residence hall building, all alcohol indicators were no longer statistically significant.

The research is consistent with past similar research. When such variables as high school performance and aptitude are accounted for, there is little association between undergraduate alcohol use and academic performance.

One interesting aspect of the study is that it is the first to find that the living environment of the undergraduates may have had a significant impact on the academic achievement of the students examined. Further research is necessary to examine the relationship between living in the residential hall and academic performance.

It is also necessary to examine how alcohol consumption is possibly mediated by the effects of the residence hall community. The stability of the community and presence of authority figures such as resident advisors may offset the effects of undergraduate drinking on academic performance.

Parents will not stop worrying about their newly released college freshmen diving too soon and too hard into alcohol. But it is possible that a choice to live in a residence hall may provide some much-needed assurance, if future research can confirm that the effects of living in a community encourage academic achievement in an environment that may seem to challenge it.

If, however, you notice other changes in your child – withdrawal from friends and activities, an unexplained drop in grades, or a DUI, the problem may be bigger for your college student. A certain percent of college students will abuse alcohol and drink in a way that damages their health and future – so don’t let the fact that most college students drink normally prevent you from getting alcohol treatment should your child