Cultural Norms


An alcohol education program pioneered by two HWS professors teaches students that the Big Party is mostly a myth.

At HWS, property damage related to drinking is down 36 percent. Missed classes due to drinking are down 31 percent. The frequency of heavy drinking has been reduced by 21 percent.

What could have happened on the HWS campus to so dramatically affect these numbers? Well, the truth is students were told the truth.

National headlines have for some time been dominated by stories of college students and heavy drinking. It is a priority concern on almost all college campuses across the country. But how colleges are addressing the problem varies.

"It doesn't do much good to preach to students," says H. Wesley Perkins, professor of sociology, who has been studying the drinking habits of college students at HWS and elsewhere for more than a decade. "That has been proven time and again."

Through his research, which involves regular surveys of college students, Perkins discovered a gap: students misperceive the habits of their peers and then model their own behavior based on those misperceptions.

"It sounds contradictory — we use what students actually do to educate them to healthier habits — but it works," says Perkins.

"Students assume that their friends are drinking more often, and consuming more alcohol at parties, than they actually are," he notes. "That's largely because the heavy drinkers are typically the ones that get noticed most at parties and talked about later."

Perkins teamed with David Craig, professor of chemistry, to attempt to educate students about the realities that surround them. About three years ago they initiated, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, an alcohol education program aimed at reducing the misperceptions that abound. They undertook an aggressive campaign on campus, providing to students the information garnered in the surveys and offering the truth about alcohol consumption patterns. The professors use classes, workshops with faculty and with the athletics departments, campus lectures, and sophisticated print and electronic media to get their message across.

All lab computers, for example, bear a screen saver that flashes "Campus Factoids" — tidbits about alcohol issues and other topics. The Alcohol Education Website, at, has logged more than 6,000 student hits.

The program now supports "two-way" conversation among students about alcohol and other drug consumption. "Campus Factoids was the beginning," says Craig, "but now we've also implemented Campus Reactoids, so that students can respond to what they see. A real dialogue happens. Students think and talk about the issue."

The HWS Alcohol Education Program recently received another very competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Education. One of only seven schools in the nation, and the only small liberal arts school on the list, HWS received funding to further its research. "The grants were awarded only to schools that could document success," says Perkins.

Does this mean that the students HWS aren't partying? No. Perkins and Craig are quick to point out that over-consumption of alcohol and abuse of other substances are still real concerns, at the Colleges and elsewhere.

"But nationally, reductions in alcohol consumption and in the adverse consequences of such behavior among college students have not occurred," Perkins points out. "Here, and at other colleges where this education model has been adopted, dramatic reductions have been confirmed."

Kathy Marshall

This article originally appeared in the Winter '00 issue of The Pulteney St. Survey. To request a copy, e-mail Susan Murad at

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