Special Reports

Penn State initiatives addressing problem behavior

Penn State has a rich history of implementing initiatives to address dangerous drinking among our students. Many of these initiatives are long standing, others are relatively new. Some reflect simple policy changes. Others are more complex and involve multiple individuals and groups.

Regardless of the scope and influence, Penn State is following the advice of the national experts — Institute of Medicine, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. surgeon general — and is implementing a comprehensive community-and campus-based prevention and intervention approach.

This article highlights some of the strategies that are currently in place to support a reduction in dangerous drinking and the impact it has on students, campus and the community. Consistent with the “comprehensive” approach, the highlights span the spectrum of alternative activities, committees, counseling efforts, educational efforts, enforcement efforts, policy changes and substance-free housing.

Alcohol-free activities

In the late 1990s Penn State was one of the first institutions in the country to offer late-night, alcohol-free activities in the student union building. The program was so successful that in 1999 the U.S. Department of Education recognized it as a model program for reducing alcohol consumption among college students.

In the early days, LateNight Penn State featured musicians, comedians and magic shows in addition to today’s regularly scheduled activities, which include arts and crafts, dancing, games and movies.

Events are offered Thursday through Sunday with activities running until 1:30 a.m. on most Fridays and Saturdays. In spite of the many competing influences, LateNight is still popular among students. The attendance rate for last year was almost 50,000 students.

Alcohol-free living

Penn State also provides substance-free housing. Students Living in a Free Environment (LIFE) House live on a residence hall floor with other students who are committed to a similar lifestyle. Residents complete a contract demonstrating their commitment to substance-free housing.

Residents plan social events that support an alcohol- and drug-free living environment. LIFE House provides a supportive community for students in recovery, for students who want to change their behavior or who simply do not want to experience the all too common aspects of other students’ drinking.

Town-gown collaboration

With support from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board in 1999, Penn State began a pivotal collaboration with many individuals and groups from the Centre Region. This town-gown collaboration, which is still thriving, is formally called The Partnership — Campus and Community United Against Dangerous Drinking. The Partnership is currently co-chaired by Penn State Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims and State College Borough Manager Tom Fontaine.

The NIAAA identifies campus-community coalitions as a key step in helping institutions and communities address the problem because members work together to identify various aspects of the problem, create appropriate solutions and evaluate the effectiveness of strategies.

Educating students

Penn State has no shortage of efforts aimed at increasing students’ knowledge about the assorted risks associated with heavy alcohol consumption.

Staff from across the institution educate students about the health risks of dangerous drinking and the effects of alcohol on academic and athletic performance.

Staff also inform students about state laws related to underage drinking and providing alcohol to minors, the impact of an underage drinking citation on future professional licensing, residence hall polices and the university’s code of conduct.

Research in the health promotion field demonstrates that educational programming alone is not effective in changing high-risk drinking among students; however, these educational efforts are essential given that every year about 7,000 new 18-year-olds arrive on campus who are unaware of the harmful physiological effects of heavy consumption and are unfamiliar with campus policies and state laws.

Online learning

Two years ago, Penn State began requiring all first-year students, at all of our campuses across the state, to complete an online alcohol education program called AlcoholEdu. The Knight Foundation is providing funding for this three-year project. The program was created by Outside the Classroom, a Boston-based company with a mission to address “epidemic-level public health issues.”

AlcoholEdu is designed to teach basic facts about alcohol and to motivate behavior change. The content was developed by a team of nationally recognized alcohol prevention experts. The content is grounded in health behavior theory and incorporates evidence-based prevention strategies.

Last year, Penn State had the largest implementation of the program in the country with more than 14,000 students taking it before arriving on campus in August.

Intervention programs

University Health Services and Counseling and Psychological Services provide intervention-based programming and services for students who show early signs of potential alcohol abuse and addiction. UHS has been running an educational program for mandated students (those who receive alcohol-related citations on and off campus) since the 1980s. The program is based on a nationally recognized model called BASICS, Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students.

The program employs a harm-reduction approach to decrease risky behaviors and the negative effects of drinking. BASICS and many of the theoretically grounded techniques used in the program have been nationally recognized by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institutes of Health.

Penn State’s Counseling and Psychological Services offers treatment and therapeutic intervention for students identified with an existing alcohol use disorder. CAPS provides individual counseling and therapy groups for students with substance-related disorders. The addiction specialist in CAPS also works with students who have repeated alcohol violations on and off campus.


Penn State and State College borough have in place a wide range of enforcement efforts. Some of these include enhancing the response to loud parties, increasing foot patrols near local taverns and launching a Source Investigation Program to identify and charge individuals who furnish alcohol to minors.

In addition to the strong enforcement efforts in State College, Penn State police work hard to enforce all alcohol-related laws among students and visitors year-round, but especially during home football games.

A code of conduct

In July 2001, Penn State changed the code of conduct policies to include criminal violations occurring in the Centre Region. Consequently, student misconduct that occurs off campus is referred to the Judicial Affairs staff and students are held accountable through a formal review process.

Penn State has a variety of policies designed to reduce alcohol availability on campus. These policies include the ban of alcohol at student sporting events as well as the ban of kegs in residence halls and fraternity and sorority social events and in stadium tailgate areas.

The fraternity governing body, Interfraternity Council, has a social policy limiting the quantity of alcohol at parties and the length of time that it can be served (a maximum of four hours). Alcohol is not permitted at campus functions except with special permission and it is not permissible for students to have alcohol in their residence hall rooms unless they are 21 or older.

Collectively these strategies represent a tremendous amount of effort and resources. Critics will undoubtedly wonder why things have not improved with so much time and money being put toward the problem. This contradiction reflects just how difficult it is to positively influence the dangerous drinking behavior of college students. Although we do not have numbers to document it, the problem would be much more severe if we did not have these many efforts already in place.

Equally hidden in the numerous initiatives -– those mentioned above and the other countless unmentioned strategies — is the high level of concern that Penn State and State College borough have about addressing this serious public health issue.

Both entities are working hard to support a community that strives to help individuals engage in healthy behaviors.

Linda LaSalle is the associate director for educational services at University Health Services, Penn State. She can be reached at lal5@psu.edu.