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The Second Most Dangerous Year

April 9th, 2009

This spring hearts will flip-flop over fat envelopes in the mailbox, as high school kids and their parents pick colleges for the coming year. But too little thought may be given to whether the college getting the acceptance check is healthy and safe, even though as kids moves into the ages of 15 to 24, their death rate jumps fivefold, the largest percent increase in the entire life cycle. If asked to pick the most dangerous year after infancy, it would be the first year after high school, because of the misuse of alcohol.

Yes, college is the place for kids to find their own way. Yes, youth is the time for experimenting. And yes, Americans have the highest minimum drinking age in the world. That said, a third of our college kids in a study from the Harvard Medical School still met clinical criteria for alcohol abuse. Other studies have found that 1700 kids die a year in alcohol related events, 600,000 suffer alcohol related injuries, and 100,000 suffer alcohol related sexual assault. Parents sending their kids off to college are sending them into a war zone replete with risk, harm and occasional tragedy.
Certainly, college presidents can’t miss that their campuses are awash in alcohol. As one former college president now hiding out in a think tank told me, “Drugs and alcohol were the bane of my existence.” Colleges teach less when they have to devote time and resources to policing students and picking up pieces of the campus after the party.
A large part of the problem is that kids drink to get drunk, not to enhance a meal by candlelight. Why they do is complex. Compared to a first run night at the movies alcohol is cheaper, faster, and from the mouths of babes, “funner.” Research shows that the alcohol industry aggressively markets to children. One measure of their success is the marriage between drinking and watching professional, college, and now high school sports. Given the forces of fun, money, sports, ads, and normal experimenting, what’s a parent to do?
One important act is the choice of a college. Is the school on national radar as a “party school?” Does drinking start on Thursday night and run to Sundays?   Is the school a national Division 1 champion or contender in some sport? Any school with a football stadium greater than 75,000 is in the entertainment business, not the business of education. How about the ratio of students to fraternities? The number one party school, according to the Princeton Review, is the University of Florida in Gainesville. It has 46,000 students and 62 fraternities. Then there’s Haverford College in Pennsylvania, with 1,168 students and no fraternities. Haverford is not a party school. (Not everyone gets in, either, as I personally know). This is not to diss big schools in favor of small. Virginia Tech, for example, has an alcohol abuse prevention center and a pretty good football team.
But there is no substitute for knowledge on the ground. Picking a college without a visit is a mistake. Once there, parents and students need to ask about the school’s drug and alcohol policies and problems. Undergrad guides are likely to be refreshingly candid. A parent should look around for telltale signs of the prior night’s activities- bottles, cans, kegs, puke, and the beery smell of kids at a college where leaders hold their noses and look the other way. Parents may still be willing to do the same and shell out $40,000 a year for the privilege, but my bet is that they just want their kid out of the house- badly. But choosing a college is a vote for more of the same. Parents have power waiting to be used.

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