Failed “A Matter of Degree” Program Claims Success

An alcohol abuse prevention program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison recently claimed success although alcohol problems have not only failed to drop but appear to be rising.

For example, the number of students so intoxicated they required admission to detox programs soared from 41 last year to 74 this year. “Those numbers don't include students taken to detox by city police at off-campus events such as the annual Mifflin Street party, where this year female students filled up the detox beds by 5 p.m.”

The “Policy, Alternatives, Community and Education” (PACE) has spent the last ten years and well over one million dollars trying unsuccessfully to reduce alcohol abuse. The university was again named the nation's top party school by the Princeton Review in August and by Playboy magazine in April. The school also was also featured in a USA Today series in November about high-risk drinking in college.


Two-thirds of American undergraduate college students are age 21 or older.

In spite of its dismal failure, the program ironically claims success. It does so by looking only at what it’s doing rather than at the behavior of students. For example it points to how many people it has hired, how many non-alcohol events it has organized, a brochure it has published, and a parental notification system it has successfully promoted. In short, the program has succeeded, it’s the students who have failed.

The PACE program is one of ten funded at universities by the anti-alcohol Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as part of its "A Matter of Degree" program. A spokesperson for the foundation said PACE has done a good job of tracking data and pushing for change, though he said the foundation had “hoped for better results at all of its program sites.” Indeed, none of the “A Matter of Degree” programs has been successful.

As one observer noted, “I'm sure PACE has good intentions with wonderful people involved, but they're misguided to the point where I believe that million dollars has just been blown down the drain."

That’s the key -- the group is clearly misguided. It’s been using the wrong approach. Using neo-prohibition tactics are doomed to failure. Using a social norms marketing approach along with brief intervention techniques would have not only cost a small fraction of what was spent but would also have reduced the incidence of drinking problems, according to the best evidence.

It’s time to use effective rather than ideological programs.


  • Rivedao, Karen. Program to reduce student drinking gets mixed marks. Wisconsin State Journal, May 7, 2006.


  • Perkins, H. Wesley (Ed.) The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Age Substance Abuse: A Handbook for Educators, Counselors, and Clinicians. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.
  • Miller, W.R. and Rollnick, S. Motivational Interviewing: Preparing People to Change Addictive Behavior. New York: Guilford Press, 1991.