AlcoholEdu, the online alcohol prevention course completed by incoming freshmen at Harvard and over 500 other American universities, is only effective in reducing harmful drinking habits of students for their first semester of college, according to a study released last week by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Organized by researchers at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Berkeley, Calif., the study tracked self-reported alcohol use from students at a total of 30 schools—half of which mandated their students to complete the course, and the other half of which were controls that did not offer the course.
The course consists of five online modules, four of which are completed the summer before students arrive on campus, and the last in the early fall. Topics covered include the definition of a standard drink, alcohol laws, and harm-reduction strategies.
The study found that students who had participated in the online course reported reduced incidences of binge drinking, physiological problems such as hangovers or vomiting, social problems such getting into fights, and sexual assault, according to lead author Mallie J. Paschall. However, the researchers found no significant differences between the alcohol use of the two groups of students in subsequent semesters, suggesting that the program has only short-term benefits.
While the study recruited both private and public schools of varying sizes, no Ivy League schools were involved, according to Paschall.
Harvard has been using the AlcoholEdu system for six years. In addition to these internet sessions, freshmen at Harvard participate in September workshops with Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisors (DAPA).
According to Paschall, one of the most effective lessons in AlcoholEdu is geared towards changing the incoming freshmen’s “perceptions of drinking norms”—namely, that heavy drinking is more prevalent than it really is.
“If you’re someone who goes out, it seems like everyone is going out every week,” DAPA Andrew J. Harris ’14 said. “It may seem, because you see a large number of people going out or drinking, that everyone drinks.”
Harris added that explaining the particulars of Harvard’s drinking culture—particularly the amnesty policy, which protects students seeking treatment for alcohol-related sicknesses from disciplinary measures—is a major focus of DAPA’s work with freshmen.
Results from this recent study support the importance of the College’s ongoing development of a “comprehensive substance abuse prevention program,” Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Jeff Neal said.
“While we will continue exploring ways to support the health of our students, we will also continue to ask students to exercise good judgment,” Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds said. “While we can educate students, they must ultimately make the right decisions for themselves and their friends.”
—Julie M. Zauzmer contributed reporting to this article.
—Staff writer Stephanie B. Garlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.