University City

Changing perceptions about college drinking

Sixty-six percent of students surveyed at UNC Charlotte said they believe their peers drink 10 or more days a month.

More than half those students also said they believe their peers consume five or more drinks when they go out.

But those perceptions might not be accurate. When the students reported their own drinking habits, the consumption levels and frequency were lower.

Still, officials at UNC Charlotte worry that when students think their peers drink more often and more heavily than they do, those perceptions could have grave consequences.

The university's Student Health Center is developing programs to create more realistic perceptions about alcohol use.

A $30,000 grant from the Mecklenburg County Alcoholic Beverage Control Board will help pay for the programs.

"UNC Charlotte students have skewed views of what their peers are doing," said Angela Allen, the alcohol sanctions program coordinator. "Research suggests that this tends to increase the perceived peer pressure to behave in ways that students ordinarily would not."

The Student Health Center randomly surveys about 8,000 undergrads and graduate students each year. That's about one-third of the student body. Most are ages 18 to 24.

The survey, called the National College Health Assessment, helps the center collect data on alcohol and tobacco use, sexual health issues and other matters related to wellness.

The center uses the data to develop education and awareness programs.

About 15 percent of the students who received the 2011 survey responded. Twenty percent of those students said they do not use alcohol at all.

Twenty-four percent reported having blackouts, in which they forgot where they were or what they did. Nineteen percent had unprotected sex and 13 percent physically injured themselves.

"It would be great if our students didn't drink," Leslie Dill, a health education specialist at the Student Health Center. "That's not what the data tells us about our students. We're looking to reduce their risk."

The center's education programs emphasize that alcohol affects people differently, based on gender, weight and other factors. This information can help students set drinking limits for themselves.

OctSoberfest is an annual alcohol-free event that encourages sobriety. Several hundred students attended last October for music, games and giveaways.

Other programs are designed to change perceptions by letting students know that drinking may not be as prevalent as some coeds might think

"Our push is in providing information to reduce those misperceptions," Allen said. "Not everyone comes to college to drink and party. Many are here to study and get a degree."