Animal House and College Drinking

The film Animal House premiered 25 years ago in 1978. During the quarter century since then, its portrayal of rampant alcohol abuse has strongly influenced popular perceptions of college life.

What, exactly, is the current state if drinking on American campuses today and how does it compare to 25 years ago?

A survey of college freshman across the US conducted annually since 1966 reports that an all-time low of 46.5 percent of students report drinking beer even occasionally during the past year. The study, conducted by UCLA in association with the American Council on Education (ACE), is based on 282,549 students at 437 baccalaureate colleges and universities across the US last year. Over time, the survey has studied tens of millions of students.

What about “partying”? The number of hours per week spent on partying is down significantly. There’s also been a steady increase in the proportion of freshmen who spend little or no time partying. Well over one-third report that they don’t party at all in a typical week, according to the UCLA/ACE study. 1

Studies at individual colleges around the country confirm the decline in drinking. For example, at Kent State University, Dr. Dennis Thombs and his colleagues tested the late-night blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of dorm residents over an entire 15-week semester. The average BAC of the students was in the low to moderate range, well below intoxication. Most college students generally don’t drink as much or as heavily as people think and the term “binge drinker” is inappropriately applied to them, according to the Kent State University researchers. 2

College students simply don't drink as much as everyone seems to think they do, according to researchers using Breathalyzers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Even on the traditional party nights of Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 66% of the students returned home with absolutely no blood alcohol content; two of every three had not a trace of alcohol in their systems even on party nights. 3

High school students are drinking less as well. For example, so-called binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks per occasion) among high school seniors has dropped dramatically between 1976 and 2002, the most recent year for which data are available. Over the past ten years, significant drops have occurred among high school seniors who have ever consumed any alcohol, who have consumed any within the past year, or have consumed any within the past 30 days These are the findings of federally-sponsored research. 4

While the abuse of alcohol by college students has dropped dramatically over the past quarter century, there are still too many who use alcohol inappropriately. Therefore, it’s important to continue the fight against alcohol abuse.

One of the most effective ways yet developed to reduce alcohol abuse is known as social norms marketing. It’s based on the proven fact that student tend to have grossly exaggerated perceptions about the extent of alcohol consumption among other students. In other words “everyone” falsely believes that “everyone else” drinks much more often and in much greater quantities than they really do. Therefore, most typical student drink more than they otherwise would in order to “fit in.”

The social norms approach involves conducting credible surveys on a campus to determine the actual levels of consumption. This information is then widely distributed or “marketed” to the student body. As soon as students realize that their peers aren’t drinking at the high levels they thought, they no longer experience the imagined social pressure and their own drinking drops. Study after study has demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach.

By using the social norms approach, we can further reduce the extent of alcohol abuse.


  • 1. Sax, L.J., et al. The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2002. Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute, University of California at Los Angeles Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, 2003. Conducted in association with the American Council on Education.
  • 2. Thombs, D.K. et al. Field assessment of BAC data to study late-night college drinking. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 2003, 64(3), 322-330.
  • 3. Foss, R.D. et al. BAC’s of University Students Returning Home at Night. Paper presented at the 78th Annual Meetings of the Transportation Research Board. Washington, DC, 1-13-99; Foss, R.D. et al. BAC’s of University Students Returning Home at Night. Proceedings of the 15th International Conference on Alcohol, Drugs, and Traffic Safety. Barlange, Sweden: Swedish National Road Administration, 2000, available at
  • 4. Johnston, L., et al. Monitoring the Future: National Results on Adolescent Drug Use: Overview of Key Findings, 2002. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute of Social Research, University of Michigan, 2003.


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