t the University at Albany in 2000, Chad Waxman
fit the profile of a college student primed for risky
drinking: A freshman male fraternity brother who
drank in high school, Waxman chose Albany in part
for its balance between work and play. “I wanted
that time to let loose,” he says.
Despite the predictors, Waxman sailed through
college in health and happiness, even serving in student
government and winning multiple leadership awards at the
university before graduating in 2003. He went on to earn his
master’s degree in counseling psychology and school counseling
from Albany in 2005 and is now a PsyD candidate at Nova
How did Waxman, now 33, avoid the pitfalls of drinking
common among college students? That’s a question
psychologists are probing deeply. After all, each year, more
than 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related accidents
and nearly 600,000 are injured while drunk, according to a
2009 study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
Another 696,000 are assaulted by another student who has
been drinking, and 97,000 are victims of alcohol-related sexual
assault or date rape, the study found.
Then there’s the 25 percent of college students who report
academic consequences related to alcohol — a hangover can
quickly derail plans for class or study — and the 11 percent who
admit damaging property after a night of drinking (Journal
of American College Health, 2002). An estimated 5 percent get
into legal trouble as a result of alcohol, the same study found.
In all, of the 80 percent of college students who drink alcohol,
half “binge drink,” or consume about four drinks in two hours
for women and five in two hours for men, according to the
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
“College drinking is sometimes still viewed as a harmless rite
of passage, when in fact [college students] are drinking more
than any other age or demographic group,” says psychologist
James Murphy, PhD, of the University of Memphis, who studies
addictive and health risk behaviors, including among college
That’s particularly dangerous given that research shows this
age group is much more impulsive even when alcohol’s not
involved, he says. There’s also evidence suggesting that excessive
alcohol use in young adulthood may impair brain development,
including in cognition and memory, according to the NIAAA.
But college also presents an opportune time to equip
students with the skills to approach alcohol intelligently, says
Murphy. With 63 percent of young Americans ages 25 to 29
having completed at least some college, according to a report
from the Pew Research Center, the setting is “a last prevention
point for our society to address the risks associated with
drinking,” he says. (Most research on college drinking so far
involves mainly full-time students in four-year colleges and
For Waxman, the time was ripe. As a peer facilitator in
“Through learning the realities of alcohol, I realized you don’t
Albany’s Counseling Center, he helped motivate other students
— and in effect, himself — to shift their drinking behaviors
using one of many emerging interventions designed and tested
by psychologists. The approaches address why a student drinks
and are tailored for specific populations of students, such as
athletes and freshmen. Some interventions are targeted to
align with specific events, such as 21st birthday celebrations,
as a way to reroute dangerous decisions made on a night that
notoriously gets out of control.
have to drink like it’s a competition to have fun,” Waxman says.
Most important, these interventions are evidence-based, says
Mary Larimer, PhD, director of the University of Washington’s
Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors and associate
director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center.
“We know a lot more about what influences excessive
alcohol use in this population and we can tailor the
interventions to address those risk factors as well,” Larimer says.
“That’s contributed to our ability to make a difference.”
One way psychologists are fine-tuning their efforts is by
pinpointing who is most at risk for problems related to
drinking. So far, research indicates that those most at risk are
incoming freshmen, student athletes and those involved in the
Greek system. Studies also show that men tend to drink more
on average than women — but women progress faster over time
from alcohol use to abuse, says Larimer. In fact, one study led
by psychologist Bettina Hoeppner, PhD, of Harvard Medical
School’s Center for Addiction Medicine, found that college
women exceed the NIAAA’s weekly limits more often than men
(Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2013).
“The gender gaps have closed a lot,” Larimer says.
Personality factors, such as impulsivity and sensation-seeking, also contribute to risky drinking. Psychological
research suggests that how different people respond to alcohol
can help predict whose behavior will become problematic.
Those who need a lot to experience its effects or who experience
more of alcohol’s stimulating rather than sedative effects, for
example, are at higher risk. Students who overestimate how
much their peers drink, as well as those who expect great
things from alcohol (“I will feel outgoing and meet my future
boyfriend!”), are more likely to overindulge and experience
alcohol’s negative consequences, such as engaging in unsafe sex,
Another factor appears to distinguish between students
who drink a lot yet remain relatively safe and those who
drink the same amount or less yet suffer the consequences:
subjective intoxication. In other words, a student’s likelihood
to get into trouble during or after drinking has as much to do
with how drunk he or she feels as it does with how much he
or she actually drinks, according to an NIAAA-funded study
conducted by Kim Fromme, PhD, of the University of Texas at