The culture of heavy drinking on many college campuses is so entrenched that it has become extraordinarily difficult to break. Each year college drinking contributes to an estimated 1,400 student deaths, 500,000 injuries, 70,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape, and an estimated 1,400 student deaths, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
This semester alone, alcohol-related deaths have occurred at the University of Oklahoma, New Mexico State University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. At least four college students in Colorado alone have died -- one just last weekend.
The effect student deaths have on other students, however, seems questionable.
According to the Department of Education and other sources, the government has spent at least $60 million on college drinking prevention programs since 1991, but the number of students who binge-drink -- defined as having consumed at least five drinks in one sitting in the previous two weeks -- has not changed. A Harvard University study of the percentage of college students deemed binge drinkers was 44 percent of those surveyed in 1993 and remained at the same level eight years later.
Cheryl Presley, executive director of the Core Institute at Southern Illinois University, says she may know why -- despite all the money and attention devoted to the problem -- nothing seems to have worked.
In a soon-to-be-published study, Presley identifies a high-risk group of hard-core drinkers that has never before been focused upon. Called "heavy and frequent" drinkers, they consume on average 20 alcoholic drinks a week. In addition to a session of "binge" drinking, "they also report three or more separate instances of drinking."
"We are saying that maybe this is a group we need to target -- that we haven't really pinpointed as clearly as we can now," she said.
Compared with other students who drink, these heavy and frequent drinkers are twice as likely to drive under the influence, twice as likely to have serious suicidal thoughts, and are two to three times more likely to be involved in a sexual assault -- either as victim or victimizer.
"I think they are certainly causing the greatest harm the greatest amount of problems," Presley said.
Presley found in her research that athletes and students belonging to fraternities are more likely to abuse alcohol, as are those who attend smaller institutions. Athletes were more likely to experience negative consequences of alcohol misuse and illicit substance use than nonathletes, she found.
Additional studies using Core Survey findings have shown that American Indian and white students use the most alcohol, black and Asian students use the least, and Hispanic students are in a middle range
Greek affiliation -- living in a Greek house, belonging to a Greek organization or planning to join the Greek system -- is correlated with higher rates of heavy episodic drinking, frequency of drinking and negative consequences.
Research from the Core Institute has shown that size of institution is generally associated with quantity of alcohol consumed, with students at smaller schools consuming greater amounts of alcohol on an average weekly basis than students at larger schools.
Identifying this group is just the first step. Health officials will next try to adapt to the psychology of such drinkers and encourage them to stop.
Alexandra Harland and Audrey Taylor contributed to this report.