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College Reports Decline in Drinking — Do They Think We Are That Gullible?

Taking an early victory lap, Jim Kim’s Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking is trumpeting a marked reduction in drinking by students who have gone though its BASICS (Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students) program. In addition to a report in Dartmouth Now and an off-line article in the Valley News, the Boston Globe has dutifully described the College’s ostensibly innovative efforts to have anthropology students study student drinking. Sheesh. It’s not as if the topic has not been addressed by competent researchers in the past.

The BASICS course works as follows:

The program is designed to help students examine their drinking behavior in a judgment-free environment and pairs online self-assessment with an interview with a counselor in the Dean of the College division. Students are invited to participate in BASICS within 72 hours of an alcohol incident and are expected to complete the program within two weeks.

Great. Students get counseled on the dangers inherent in demon rum and the like. You can be sure that they learned a lot that they didn’t know before. And the results, according to the College?

Data from intervention work with about 100 students who violated the College alcohol policy last fall—many of them needing medical assistance—show that their alcohol consumption has been cut almost in half within 90 days…

“We have had some remarkable data that indicates our efforts have been well worth it thus far. Next term, we look forward to our expanded use of BASICS,” said Brian Bowden, coordinator of Alcohol and Other Drug Education Programs.[Emphasis added]

“Data” is a wonderful word, isn’t it? So scientific sounding. Jim Kim trots it out as a conversation-stopper whenever he can. But do you smell a rat? I do, too, and so did Carl Marlborough at the Dartmouth Review, who described the whole scenario in some detail.

It turns out that the “data” in question comes only from students themselves: undergraduates who have completed the BASICS course are asked about their post-course drinking habits in several follow-up questionnaires. And lo and behold, the students give the right answers on the test! After all, they know in advance what the professor is looking for. Marlborough quoted one student as follows:

“Who actually tells the truth on those things?” laughs one ‘15 who was required to take part in the program. “They think that I drink three beers a night now.”

Of course, this white lie works for everyone. The students thereby signal that they need no further intervention, and the Dean of the College’s Office and the President can boast “Mission Accomplished.”

This is the way that things are today at Dartmouth. Appearance is everything; reality be damned.

Addendum: The College’s press release also notes another new anti-drinking initiative, one that will certainly foster close relationships between Undergraduate Advisors and their charges:

Also new for spring term is a pilot project in which undergraduate advisors (UGAs) in Russell Sage residence hall seek out and report underage drinking. Previously, UGAs addressed such behavior after it was reported to them. For the first several weeks of the term, UGAs issued warnings. From the end of April, Russell Sage residents violating the alcohol policy will be required to complete BASICS.

How nice to know that the senior in the room next to you has the power denounce you for an offense. Unless, of course, you are accommodating in some way.


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