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Responsibility of Colleges and Universities to Address the Prevailing Drinking Culture That Exists on Too Many Campuses

Summary of the Federal Law

 

The Drug Free Schools and Communities Act and its 1989 amendments requires institutions of higher education to deal seriously with campus drinking as a condition to qualify for federal support as part of the Higher Education Act of 1965. The 1998 reauthorization of the act included a "sense of Congress," an advisory that urges institutions to provide students with "maximum opportunities" to "live in an alcohol-free environment" and apply a "zero tolerance" policy for the illegal consumption of alcohol  as well as vigorous enforcement of sanctions for those in violation.

Why with such a strong law has drinking on campuses continued unabated? The answer became increasingly clear: It is because of the lack of effective enforcement by the US Department of Education.

For colleges to qualify for federal support, including student-loan programs, the law specifies that they must satisfy certain requirements that can be divided into two categories:

Compliance documentation. The documentation requirements include the development of "standards of conduct that clearly prohibit, at a minimum, the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of illicit drugs and alcohol by students and employees on its property or as part of any of its activities"; distribution of that code to students and employees; and "a clear statement that the institution will impose sanctions on students and employees ... and a description of those sanctions."

An institution must then confirm its compliance through biennial reviews and show continued efforts to monitor the program's effectiveness, making necessary adjustments and ensuring that the sanctions required by statute are consistently enforced.

The standards-of-conduct requirement is notable and shows a marked difference from the pre-1989 view toward institutions' responsibility for controlling student drinking. In the 1970s and 80s, many institutions were advised by counsel against becoming involved with campus drinking issues, given the courts' reluctance to find colleges liable for voluntary student behavior. But the 1989 amendment demands that colleges be more accountable.

Consistent enforcement. Congress recognized the importance of enforcing institutional standards of conduct by urging zero tolerance of illegal alcohol consumption and citing it as an objective of the required biennial review. The Education Department also lists consistent enforcement as a requirement for compliance in its published regulations.

The evaluations of institutional-compliance reviews are under the purview of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention, an independent organization under contract to the Education Department. The center periodically audits a small sample of the biennial reviews to assess performance. But, according to an interview the center published last year with Richard Lucey Jr., an education-program specialist in the Education Department's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, the job of enforcing the regulations that withhold federal moneys "falls under the purview of the Department's Office of Federal Student Aid." He further describes the center's role as one that provides "information and technical assistance" and "some advice and resources campuses may need in developing effective prevention programs." In other words, the center monitors compliance but doesn't have any authority to administer sanctions to institutions that fail to meet standards.

Ensuring that compliance efforts have a positive effect on campuses is even more difficult. That would require the Education Department to not only thoroughly evaluate biennial-review reporting and statistics, but also to monitor campus practices to make sure that reports on compliance efforts were accurate. If the reality on campuses matched the diligent, consistent enforcement likely portrayed in most institutions' self-reported biennial reviews, campus-drinking culture and habits would change. That does not seem to be the case. There are no doubt many discrepancies between campus claims and campus realities.

While the Education Department cannot be expected to monitor enforcement on all campuses, it should have a process to investigate when apparent instances of noncompliance are brought to its attention. Recent experience strongly indicates that there is no such process. Funds for compliance monitoring are not specifically appropriated but are included in the Education Department's overall support, so monitoring occurs only to the extent that the department allocates resources to it. Also compliance monitoring has been delegated to the Higher Education Center, a move that apparently has satisfied department officials that their responsibility for it has been fulfilled. Such an approach may be reflected in the fact that, despite the requirements' and sanctions' being in the law for 17 years, no sanctions have ever been levied under it.

(Excerpt from the article "The Importance of Enforcing Alcohol Rules" by Stephen M. Guest, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, June 1, 2007.  Click here to read the full article

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