UI admin reasserts connection between UI plan and less binge drinking

BY GUEST OPINION | JULY 06, 2011 7:20 AM

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The real world is a messy place to collect data and draw conclusions, and The Daily Iowan’s June 27 editorial, “Drinking stats encouraging, not proof of programs’ efficacy,” did a good job of pointing out some of the challenges in interpreting data from the spring administration of the National College Health Assessment. Those data indicate that University of Iowa students have reduced their high-risk drinking rate by 8 percent.

The DI editorial suggests that the way in which the data were collected means that the results might not generalize to the undergraduate students as a whole. Both the 2009 and 2011 data were collected from students enrolled in Health and Physical Activity Skills courses. As noted in the fact sheet referenced in our press release, these students are similar to undergraduate students at large in terms of major, year in school, sex, GPA, membership in the Honors Program, and other characteristics. This convenience sample, with its 98 percent response rate, is actually a good deal more representative than the typical random survey on our campus, because those surveys usually get very low response rates and those nonresponders are systematically different from the responders. So, the national-assessment results are a pretty good description of the drinking behaviors of undergraduate students.

The editorial also suggests that the changes we have observed in drinking behavior might have nothing to do with the changes in the environment (including the 21-ordinance) and might even have occurred before those changes took place.

In the messy real world, any conclusions about what led to observed changes have to be made cautiously and tentatively. That said, they do have to be made if we are to decide whether to continue, modify, or drop our efforts.

I have two reasons to believe that the decrease in high-risk drinking is due to changes described in our Alcohol Harm Reduction Plan along with the city ordinance. First, in other data sets related to alcohol harm (students admitted to the Emergency Treatment Center with alcohol-related problems, residence-hall sanctions, students transported by ambulance for alcohol poisoning, for example), we see improvements from the fall of 2010 to the fall of 2011, consistent with the hypothesis that changes in the environment in the year leading up to the 2011 data collection led to changes in student behavior. Second, we relied heavily on a growing body of research specific to best practices in reducing high-risk drinking on college campuses in developing our Alcohol Harm Reduction Plan.

That research has helped us choose a set of interventions that are designed to meet the unique needs of our campus and have proven effective elsewhere, and we have every reason to believe that they have been effective here.

In the end, though, the DI editorial is exactly right: “No matter where the credit is due, increased student safety is always welcome.”

Tom Rocklin is the University of Iowa vice president for Student Life.

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