“Higher” Ed.

This past week the Columbia University’s Center for Alcohol and Substance Abuse (CASA), headed by the former Secretary of Health Joseph Califano Jr., released a report on the state of alcohol and drug use on the college level. The full, text can be found here. Though this is not the first CASA report on the subject of college student substance abuse, it does appear, at least by first glance, to be more broadly accepted as legitimate scholarship in the field. The previous study released by CASA caught the attention of several major scholars and media outlets cooking its statistics to inflate the crisis of college drinking. Here’s a brief review of that criticism.

In my initial read of the CASA report titled, Wasting the Best and Brightest, I had very little trouble with their statistics. They are, in short, expected and not substantially different from other sources. In short, CASA reports that close to 50% of college students report abusing alcohol (binge drinking), illicit drugs, or prescription drugs. Previous research (2001) say binge drinking levels are about 40%. The way CASA compiles the all rates of abuse into one figure it is easy to mistake that figure for 25% increase in the rate of binge drinking (from 40 to 50 percent) in the past 5 years. That is definitely not the case. However, I do find it difficult to believe that 10% of the college population abuses illicit or prescription drugs but are not guilty of binge drinking. It’s possible, but rather unlikely. The take away point of all of this? The headlining statistic of their report, may not be as high as they report. It’s not the end of the world but if someone has the time it is definitely worth investigating in greater detail.

The other striking thing about the CASA report is the disconnect between the report itself and the accompanying statement by its director Joe Califano. The report proper is written well, and reflects the staid discussion of findings and recommendations that is expected from a college-funded study. That language is sharply contrasted by the rhetoric of Califano’s opening statement. “Too many [college presidents, deans, and trustees] assume a Pontius Pilate posture, leaving the problem in the hands of the students.” How that caustic attack on college administrators is supposed to solve the problem of abuse on college campuses is lost on this reader. The comparison is foolish, if not impudent.

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