Perception versus reality: Student use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs

One stereotype that comes with being a college student is the partying and binge drinking. Every four years, there is a Core Alcohol and Drug Survey conducted on campus to assess the perceptions and use of alcohol and other drugs by UAA students.

In 2014, the survey was sent electronically to 3,800 students, which was completed by 454 UAA students who were required to be over the age of 18 and enrolled with three credits or more. They found that 85 percent of students believe that the average student uses alcohol once a week or more, while only 56 percent of students consumed on average one or more drinks per week.

The UAA Core Alcohol and Drug Survey was conducted by the Office of Student Affairs, Dean of Students Office and co-sponsored by Communities Mobilizing for Change on Alcohol. UAA has used the Core Survey in previous years with the most recent one in 2014.

“It’s a positive social norming campaign, we did it this way so people can see even though most people think UAA students are getting wasted, actually we have a pretty healthy student body and this is the actual percentage and perceptions can be deceiving,” Amanda Kookesh, UAA’s Alcohol, Drug and Wellness Educator, said. “I think being in college and being a college student that you’re expected to maybe party and partake in binge drinking, I think that’s kind of the norm coming in whereas really you’re not, but we’re hoping that perception does not influence them.”

Whitney Brown, the assessment and strategic projects director at the Office of Student Affairs, had a huge role in conducting the survey from survey assessment standpoint of the methodology, administering the survey, data analysis and sharing the findings and results.

“We have pretty concise methodology, so we administered the survey to a representative sample of students, they needed to be 18 years or older to participate, so we filtered out anyone under 18 years old and they needed to be taking three credits on the anchorage campus during fall of 2014 when we administered the survey,” Brown said. “We administered to a wide net to ensure that the response rate that we get is able to be generalized to the population, so we had 454 students respond to the survey and then that was conducted over a three week period of time in November of 2014.”

To properly handle the data received by students, it was important to have several people evaluate the data.

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“The way we do survey analysis is we bring in multiple people to analyze the data to ensure we have diverse perspectives as we’re looking at the data and remain unbiased when analyzing the data and also for data clarity to see if this makes sense, if we should further analyze additional aspects, stuff like that,” Brown said.

Not only was there a survey conducted on alcohol, but the use of tobacco and marijuana. In the tobacco findings, 67 percent of students believed their peers were using tobacco once a week or more. However, it was found that only 13 percent of students were partaking in tobacco use once a week or more. In the marijuana survey, 62 percent of students believed their peers used marijuana once a week or more, whereas only eight percent were. With these findings, time makes a difference in the results and the planning of exposing the facts.

“The campaign started off with alcohol so we wanted to make sure that came out before spring break, that ran for two weeks, and starting Monday [March 20], tobacco will run for two weeks and then the last piece will be marijuana and that will go with 4/20,” Kookesh said.

Over time trends and fads are likely to take place. This is the reason why the Core Alcohol and Drug Survey takes place every four years. Within these findings, there were other positive trends found in the data.

“There are some highlights in the data that I just think were interesting for me as I was analyzing them particularly when we look at trends over time, that’s why we do it every four years, to see what changes there are amongst our demographic. Two that stood out to me were driving under the influence of alcohol and that has significantly decreased from 20 percent in 2010 reporting to 13 percent in 2014 reporting that they’ve driven under the influence,” Brown said. “That’s a really positive change, and then also the increase in social non-acceptance of smoking tobacco, and that there is a significant decrease in regular use from 24 percent regularly use in 2010, to only 15 percent regular use of tobacco in 2014.”

It is unknown if the high rate of alcoholism in Alaska is what influenced students to believe that their peers were drinking more than they actually were. The survey is important because of the high rate of alcoholism to see what the perceptions were and the reality.

A lot of the time when there are surveys conducted like the Core Alcohol and Drug Survey many people don’t believe the results or they are exposed in a way that seems unbelievable. It was important to expose these findings in a way to encourage the positive environment at UAA.

The result of the survey baffles some students because of how often they witness their peers out drinking at the bars or on social media.

“I find the results shocking because when I go downtown I see a majority of the students that go to UAA in the bars or Snapchats of friends that go to UAA drinking,” Jordan McGee, radiology tech major, said. “I am proud to be a part of a school that is working hard towards their academic goals instead of spending their time drinking.”

Since studies at UAA have shown that only 56 percent of students drink at least once or more a week, some students find it comforting to know that their peers don’t follow the average stereotype.

“If the statistics hold true, it is very comforting to know that not everyone immediately turns to alcohol for recreational use or as a coping mechanism,” Annalisa Haywood, medical lab science major, said. “It’s good to see that many college students are breaking the stereotype of consuming alcohol on a regular basis, although I do believe that the true statistic should be a little higher than 56 percent.”

As of now, there is a recovery group on campus specific for college students, which takes place every Thursday from 12 – 2 p.m. in the Eugene Short Hall. This is going on throughout this semester and is hoping to continue through the summer and fall depending on availability of student staff.

The UAA Core Alcohol and Drug Survey can be found on the UAA website under the Dean of Students reports. The next survey will take place in 2018 to research the current use of alcohol and drugs.