Alcohol Use among Students: How Parents Can be Partners in Prevention

By Susan E. Bruce

On college campuses across the country, hazardous drinking and the negative consequences associated with it are a national concern. The University of Virginia takes seriously the problem of unhealthy and dangerous drinking among students. Although most U.Va. students consume alcohol in a lower-risk manner and do not experience serious alcohol-related problems, alcohol use is prevalent among, and accepted by, many students and contributes to a variety of negative outcomes. Ensuring the health and safety of students is a University-wide priority.

Susan Bruce
Director, U.Va. Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention

The University approaches alcohol education with multiple tactics, and data collected over the past decade indicate that our efforts are reducing negative consequences. The culture of student self-governance ensures that students are significantly engaged in program development, and we encourage students to stand up for their rights, especially when a peer’s use of alcohol has an effect on the living and learning environment.

Professional staff members follow up on situations as appropriate, ranging from student judicial action to developmental conversations and support for students needing treatment for substance dependence. Students are educated on the signs of alcohol overdose and are strongly urged to seek immediate medical attention when dangerous situations arise. Students living in on-Grounds housing are encouraged to report troubling or dangerous behavior to their resident advisers so that problems can be addressed in a timely and appropriate manner. To encourage students to seek immediate medical care, we remind them that Emergency Room staff do not notify police or U.Va. administrators when a student is seen for an alcohol-related incident.

Here are a few suggestions on how parents can continue to support students in making healthy choices now that they are far from home:


Talk to your students about alcohol. Don’t assume they won’t be drinking. Tell them how to be safe: no or low consumption; no high-risk drinking; always have trustworthy, designated, non-drinking friends who will be responsible if your student is drinking.

Nancy and Steve Skancke
Parents of Matthew ’05 and Carolyn ’09
Great Falls, Virginia

  • Initiate conversations about alcohol choices and make your expectations clear. Your son or daughter probably won’t bring up the issue without some prompting. Parental expectations do have an impact on student drinking behaviors.
  • Know that most parents do have these conversations. A national study found that three-quarters of parents say they discussed family rules about alcohol use with their sons and daughters in the previous three months.
  • Avoid scare tactics. Be factual and straightforward about your family beliefs and your concern about the choices your daughter or son may be facing. Ninety percent of young adults say the way to reach them is to focus more on health and safety issues, not just legal consequences.
  • Know that U.Va. students drink far less than you might think. When we give students accurate information about their peers’ actions, we increase healthy behaviors. A recent U.Va. study found that on a typical Saturday night, a majority of students (58 percent) either don’t drink or consume no more than three alcoholic beverages. More than one-third (39 percent) of first-years typically don’t drink. Regrettably, many students believe that all students drink heavily, and this misperception of what is “normal” at U.Va. may influence them to make higher-risk drinking choices. Students also underestimate the prevalence of protective behaviors such as calling 911 when they encounter an unresponsive student and, as a result, may falsely believe that their peers are reluctant to intervene in dangerous situations.

The University has a number of programs in place to assist students who make poor choices around alcohol. These include one-on-one meetings with University administrators; online education programs offered by the Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention; the Hoos in Recovery student support group; and free professional alcohol and drug abuse assessments through Counseling and Psychological Services.

For more information about substance abuse education programs and support for students in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, contact Student Health’s Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention at 924.5276 or see

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