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Summary of Federal Law


Controlling Campus Alcohol Use

“There Ought to be a Law!

Stephen M. Guest


Of the many dangers that distresses parents, harm to their children from drug and alcohol use is likely one of the most prevalent concerns.  Parental anxiety only increases when that child ventures onto a college campus.  With the constant publicity given campus drinking, a parent may well exclaim, “there ought to be a law” which can effectively control what seems to be a growing problem. 


This was our family’s reaction after our daughter, Kristine, was one of the over 1,700 college-aged individuals who died in an alcohol related incident in 2005.  Although not involved with the excessive drinking occurring at a campus party of 80 to 100 students, Kristine fell victim to the excessive drinking of others.  As with other parents in our situation, we questioned why colleges and universities are not required to better control such harmful activities.


Surprisingly, since 1989, there has been such a law.  However, lack of enforcement has failed to cause real change in attitudes on many campuses.  In 1989, Congress passed the Drug Free Schools and Campuses Act which established requirements that all colleges and universities must meet prior to qualifying for federal funds, including federal student financial aid.  Congress’ stated goal in enacting the requirements was to change the culture of underage and excessive drinking on campuses.  The potential sanctions for noncompliance clearly are sufficient for all institutions to take notice.


The requirements are:

  • Establishment of standards of conduct that clearly prohibit, at a minimum, the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of illicit drugs and alcohol by students.
  • A clear statement that the institution will impose sanctions on students and employees (consistent with local, State, and Federal law), and a description of those sanctions.
  • A biennial review by the institution of the institution’s program to:
    • Determine the program’s effectiveness and implement changes to the program if the changes are needed; and
    • Ensure that the sanctions required are consistently enforced.
  • The institution must certify compliance with the requirements as a prerequisite in securing federal funding.


The law’s requirements can be separated into two categories.  The first category relates to documentation.  This includes policies and procedures, enforcement statements, biennial review, and certification.  This papering of an institution’s compliance is likely complete and compelling for most, if not all, colleges and universities receiving federal funding.  Compliance review has been assigned to the Center for Higher Education, an independent organization under contract to the US Department of Education (ED).   Their compliance guide for colleges and universities and other information is available at


The Center described their review process as follows:

“The Center conducts an analysis of a weighted random sample of campus biennial review reports.  This is different than an audit – an audit may only be done by the Office of Student Financial aid.  The Center conducts an analysis in order to provide campuses with assistance in conducting their biennial reviews, in preparing the report, and in conducting effective prevention programs.  We analyze reports from under 10% of campuses nationwide.”1


The second requirement category relates to consistent enforcement, which is listed in the ED regulations as a minimum requirement for compliance.  Consistent enforcement must be demonstrated in the biennial review.  While ensuring paper compliance apparently is adequately addressed by the role given to the Center for Higher Education, determining compliance with the consistent enforcement requirement rests within ED.


While ED cannot be expected to monitor consistent enforcement on all campuses, they should have a process to investigate when apparent instances of noncompliance are brought to their attention.  Recent experience strongly indicates that ED does not have such a process in place and may not be willing to be proactive in addressing such instances.  After seventeen years, there have been no sanctions applied under the act.  Our family is attempting to compel the ED to address the college’s consistent enforcement of their policies prohibiting alcohol use, with little progress thus far.  More concerning, the process demonstrated that no established review process exists within ED. 


This lack of effective enforcement by ED is the primary reason a seemingly effective law has caused little change in attitudes on many campuses.  Concerned parents need not be passive and hope for the best.  Rather, they can confront the issue prior to feeling compelled as result of a family tragedy. 


Action is possible prior to a tragedy occurring both for parents of incoming students and present students.


For incoming students:

  • At open houses, ask pointed question regarding campus alcohol policies and enforcement.
  • Make inquires as to recent tragedies involving alcohol on campus.  Internet searches facilitate these efforts.
  • Determine nature and popularity of weekend campus activities which do not involve alcohol.
  • Question present students who are not necessarily in a role where they are selling the campus. 
  • Once your child has narrowed his or her choices, ask for a copy of the biennial review.


For parents of present students, many of the above continue to be appropriate, in addition to:

  • Read the campus newspaper.
  • Inquire whether statistics are available for the number of students referred to medical treatment for alcohol poisoning.  Privacy issues make such facts difficult to obtain, but the very question increases awareness and elicits interesting responses
  • Continuously talk to your child regarding alcohol issues.


More comprehensive suggested actions for parents were detailed in a 2002 study, “Dying to Drink” by Henry Wechsler, Ph. D, and Bernice Wuethrich.2   In addition, there many examples where efforts to alter the campus alcohol culture by colleges, communities, the alcohol distribution industry and government resulted in positive change.  These examples counter the view that campus drinking is inevitable and attempts at control are futile.


If college administrators receive inquiries regarding the Drug Free Schools and Campuses Act frequently and from many directions, they will realize that parents are both concerned and aware of the institution’s obligations under federal law.  Their compliance activity will no longer be just an afterthought. 

Parents are strongly advised to address these issues now before a tragedy leaves them no choice.


Questions for parents:

  • I understand that as a condition to receiving federal funding, the college/university is required to do everything reasonable to provide students with the opportunity to live in an alcohol free environment.  How successfully does the college/university meet its obligation under federal law?
  • The college/university is required to prepare a biennial review by the Drug Free Schools and Campuses Regulations.  I understand that the biennial review reports on college/university’s efforts in controlling underage excessive drinking on campus.
    • Where can the biennial review be located for parents to review?
    • Is the biennial review available through the internet?
    • Can we as parents feel comfortable that the information in the biennial review reflects the attitudes and practices on campus?


1 Email response from Beth DeRicco, PhD, Associate Director, The Center for College Health and Safety, November 28, 2006


2 Henry Wechsler, Ph. D, and Bernice Wuethrich, Dying to Drink, Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses, (Rodale Inc., 2002)

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In loving Memory of Kristine Guest