Why College Kids Drink Like They’re Getting Extra Credit for It

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Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis

College binge-drinking is a perennial public-health concern, and most recently the concern has been allocated for college women. “Binge drinking is an under recognized problem among women and girls,” the CDC reported last year, amid a spate of nonfiction books about women catching up to men's drinking habits, which some have argued contributes to campus sexual assault. The effects of binge-drinking on men and women are well-known; less-discussed is what causes binge-drinking in the first place.

Here’s one hypothesis: A lot of young people — and maybe especially young women, who are more competitive college applicants and students — have no idea how to relax. If a teenager wants to succeed in the ever more competitive college admissions game (in the hopes of succeeding in the ever more competitive job market), she won’t get much practice filling unstructured leisure time until she arrives on campus.

College binge-drinking is the first way I learned to differentiate between work and not-work, at least. Between high school, homework, my paid job, and standardized test prep, I barely had free time as a teenager. More important, by the time I got to high school, all of my hobbies and interests had become worklike — competitive, résumé-boosting extracurricular activities. I got to college burned out and lonely. I spent most of my free time freshman year wondering what everyone else was doing, and whether I should be working. The only way I knew I definitely wasn’t working was if I were drinking.

Allie Ebben, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, described a similar trajectory. She didn’t drink in high school, because getting caught would have risked her place on the varsity sports team and in the National Honor Society, which would have compromised her ability to get into University of Wisconsin, where she would have plenty of time to drink. Once on campus, she found her peers drinking with the time-management gusto of kids who grew up booked within an inch of their lives. At the University of Wisconsin, she explained, the weekend begins on Wednesday, with lethal-sounding specials at local bars that aren’t picky about fake IDs: a 16-ounce fishbowl cocktail for $10 at one and $2 Long Island iced teas at another. “Thirsty Thursday” is when fraternities and sororities host themed mixers for members, which everyone prepares for by drinking in their dorms or apartments. (For non-Greeks, mixed drinks are three for $5 at yet another local bar.) Everyone reconvenes for house parties on Friday and, as a result, many are still drunk the next morning, when tailgating begins as early as eight and lasts all day, sometimes with a pause to nap before a night football game and postgame party. Ebben’s freshman-year excesses predictably faded with sophomore-year ambitions, but campus-wide, she said, “free time equals partying, drinking.”

And the heavily structured, regular drinking schedule of a party school (which usually boasts some combination of cold weather, isolation, and football), means there’s always someone to drink with. Take it from one of our interns, Samuel Anderson, fresh out of Kenyon College, in (isolated) Ohio: “The door to getting wasted was always open if you ever found yourself with free time and an itch to scratch. If you had a three-hour seminar that got out at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, or any day, your brain would be fried and virtually the only two courses of action would be to watch TV in bed or drink.”

Getting drunk is a universal and time-tested strategy for filling leisure time in the company of strangers — high-functioning adults do this and call it networking or dating. And although fraternities bear the brunt of binge-drinking panic, it’s a coping mechanism that transcends social divisions. At the University of Iowa (the Princeton Review’s top party school of 2013), “either you’re a normal Hawkeye who binge drinks or you’re a hipster Hawkeye who binge drinks or you’re an international student who also binge drinks or you’re just not included in the community,” junior Sri Ponnada told me. If there aren’t empty Hawkeye vodka bottles lined up like objets d’arts in the background of your Instagram photos, or if people don’t recognize you from the bars, she said, “you’re weird.” The difference between methodical social drinking and statistically problematic drinking lies in the pregame. These pre-party parties extend drinking hours into binge territory but are, by most accounts, imperative. Steeling oneself with a dorm-room power hour — the equivalent of five beers in one hour — “was the only way to enjoy the bad, sexed-up Grinnell parties,” said Concepcion de Leon, also an intern here.

Is there a more obvious cry for definitive playtime than the ongoing popularity of drinking games? Beer pong is fun in the way round-robin paddle tennis is fun: a game that’s easy to pick up and not embarrassing to be bad at. It gives you a teammate to bond or flirt with and forces you become acquainted with a manageable number of stranger-opponents. Because you’re drinking, it’s almost as fun to lose as it is to win. It’s everything I imagine I might have gotten out of the summer pickup games I forewent in order to attend specialized sports camps. All partying is about making others “complicit in your self-gratification,” Anderson noted, an abstraction that becomes concrete “when it becomes about successfully getting a ball to go in a cup.”

The silver lining is that the heavily structured binge-drinking of pregames, tailgates, and beer pong quickly reveals its own monotony. “Once you go to the same parties with the same people for three years and they don’t get better, you start to realize drinking isn’t going to help all that much,” de Leon said. By then, most college students are legally eligible to do the kind of drinking they wanted to do all along — in public, leisurely, with people they like. The long-term risk of college binge-drinking culture, it seems to me, is training young adults to use alcohol to draw a thick line between work and play. With my five-year reunion approaching, I don't have much interest in parties I need to be drunk to walk into and don’t want to remember. What’s harder is getting home, determinedly sober, and not reaching for my laptop in search of more work.