BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Drinking among college students has declined over the past decade, studies show, as society has grown less tolerant of alcohol. But that decline masks a trend that is proving both stubborn and lethal: the persistence of abusive or "binge" drinking.
"More students are drinking abusively," said Thomas G. Goodale, vice president for student affairs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute here. "I've never seen it like I've seen it in the last 10 years, with the last five years worse than the first five."
Although the number of college students who said they drank declined to 80 percent this year from 89 percent in 1981, according to a survey by the University of Florida, another survey for the federal government by the University of Michigan suggests that abusive drinking among college students has held steady. The survey also found that such abusive drinking has declined among 19- to 22-year-olds who are not in college.
At Virginia Tech and Boston College, from Rutgers to Stanford, administrators are grappling with the problem. And at some campuses, there has clearly been an increase in abusive drinking, which is defined by the National Institute of Drug Abuse and other specialists as consuming five or more drinks at one sitting.
At Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, the student health center treats an average of 10 cases of severe alcohol poisoning a semester, up from six a decade ago. At Gritman Medical Center in Moscow, Idaho, minor to severe cases of alcohol poisoning have doubled to an average of eight a week.
Generations of college students have drunk to excess, reveling in their newfound freedom from parental reins. But college deans, alcohol rehabilitation specialists and students themselves say many of the factors that lead to abusive drinking have intensified in recent years.
"The 21 drinking age law is the most unenforced law in the country," said Arthur Sandeen, vice president of student affairs at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "Frankly, it's a nightmare."
Students themselves suggest that attempts to curtail alcohol consumption are futile because they will find ways to bypass rules and laws.
"Kids feel like they have to drink," said Brenda Wirsbinski, a 20-year-old junior finance major at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. "They feel the pressure from other people. It's really common for incoming freshmen to go out every weekend. That's what college is about."