Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
This year incoming freshmen were required to take AlcoholEdu, a web-based course that lasts about two and a half hours and imparts information about alcohol safety.
Freshmen were given their e-mail addresses in late July required to complete the course online by August 28th, the day they arrived on campus. 96 percent of them had completed the course or were close to completion by that date. Upperclassmen RAs, SAMs, and Orientation Committee members were also required to complete the course.
Dean of Students Jim Larimore says that AlcoholEdu is a program “I’ve been familiar with for several years.” About 450 schools around the country use it, including early adopter Dartmouth, where Larimore worked before coming to Swarthmore.
The Delta Upsilon fraternity was the early adopter at Swarthmore. They were encouraged by the national organization to take the program to get a discount on their accident insurance. “They took the lead and went to Myrt Westphal asking for some funding for the program,” said Dean of Alcohol Education Tom Elverson ’75. “They said it was long and repetitive, but they liked the part about physiological effects and the BAC calculator… I thought it spoke highly of the fraternity, taking the initiative on themselves.”
After listening to the fraternity’s feedback, the school chose to purchase the program for everyone, requiring it of all first year students and their RAs but also providing it for fraternities, athletics teams, and any other campus group that might want to use it.
The program was not in response to any uptick in unsafe drinking at Swarthmore. “Things have been better in the past four years,” said Elverson, and Swarthmore students also exhibit safer behaviors than peer schools. At most colleges, about 44% of the student body engages in binge drinking, but at Swarthmore that hovers between 30 and 35 percent. Larimore guessed that “we probably have in an average year 30-40 students who may need to stay overnight at Worth, and some smaller number of students taken to the ER because their situation is so risky.”
Indeed, last year outside alcohol consultants from MIT and Harvard, told Larimore that “they wished that they could take our student body back with them. They found that students here were very mature and very focused on the health and safety of their peers, they found a close and supportive relationship between students and the administration, and they found that contact with the local police was good.” The one improvement they suggested was to use a population level education program such as AlcoholEdu.
Since students come from so many different backgrounds with regards to alcohol, “we wanted to have a common foundation that everyone could work off of.” The course starts with questions about previous experience with alcohol and expectations for college which help to personalize the content. For example, students who don’t plan to drink get more information about how to cope with somebody else’s drinking, especially important at a school where, according to Larimore, “20 percent don’t drink.”
That said, even Swarthmore has a “chronic population,” the 1-2 percent of students who are either already alcoholic or who have a strong genetic tendency to become alcoholic. “We’re in a fortunate position in that if there is someone dealing with chronic alcohol issues it is very hard for that to go unnoticed here,” said Elverson, “because of our size and the intimate scale of the campus we’re able to exercise a very different ethic of care.”
Students reported unease with the impersonality of the program, unique at a school with face-to-face workshops on diversity and sexual assault, and were also unsure about how the information would translate to the real world. Swarthmore will have an opportunity to see how that works in practice when the first-years fill out a follow-up survey in six weeks, asking about the campus alcohol environment and the choices they’ve made. This personal information is not available to Swarthmore.
Erika Tower, Director of Marketing and Communications at the company that makes Alcohol Edu, said that they company is looking for ways to personalize the program for different schools. “We’ve been around for seven years… the first version had no personalization, but we learned quickly that we needed personalization on the student level… we do updates every year.”
Tower said that AlcoholEdu costs the average college about $15,000 but that as a smaller school Swarthmore would have paid less than that. Swarthmore negotiated to lower the price even more by entering into a contract with nine other schools, including Bates and Dickinson. Penn already uses the program, and Bryn Mawr and Haverford are waiting in part to see how it works at Swarthmore.
Elverson stressed that “this is not in lieu of another program… it’s in addition to and it enhances the way RAs talk about alcohol.” The idea was to “front-load some of the content and then leverage the RA’s relationship with their freshmen.”
More initiatives are planned for this year. One idea Larimore mentioned was rewarding students who committed to putting on safe parties by giving them extra money for non-alcoholic beverages and food. At Dartmouth, Larimore said, Student Life would deliver “Party Packs” of pizza to ensure that students wouldn’t drink on an empty stomach.
Elverson also plans to speak with Borough Police about the AlcoholEdu program and let them see it for themselves. He said that 17 students were cited for underage drinking by the Borough Police last year, including students picked up on campus and in the Ville. “In the last four years we’ve seen a clear difference in how the Police view the work that we’re doing behind the scenes with students… they’re much more appreciative and cognizant of the counselling and even the punitive work that we’re doing.”