New online alcohol education program seeks to reduce risks for new students

L.A. Cicero Ralph Castro, manager of the university’s Substance Abuse Prevention Program and chair of the Alcohol Advisory Board

Ralph Castro, manager of the university’s Substance Abuse Prevention Program and chair of the Alcohol Advisory Board, adjusts his alcohol-impairment goggles during a 2004 training session for resident assistants.

New students are being asked to examine their attitudes about drinking in an effort to help them make healthier decisions.

The university has introduced an online alcohol education program that incoming freshmen are required to complete prior to their arrival at new student orientation. AlcoholEDU, created by a company called Outside the Classroom, is now used by more than 350 colleges and is tailored to fit in with the university's existing alcohol policies and resources.

"We're trying to be proactive," said Ralph Castro, alcohol and drug educator and manager of the Substance Abuse Prevention Program for Vaden Health Center. "Not that we have a huge problem here, but we want students to understand their views about alcohol. This is just one more piece in the puzzle of our comprehensive alcohol abuse education program."

It takes about three hours to complete the first part of AlcoholEDU, and students can log on or off the site as often as they need to complete it. To complete the second part, freshmen must complete a short survey within a few weeks of the beginning of school. The information remains confidential, but the company will provide aggregate data to the university based on responses, Castro said.

AlcoholEDU takes a harm-reduction approach to drinking and includes information on risk reduction, helping friends, making responsible choices and legal issues. The program is tailored to the different responses of the student so that a student who abstains will be led down a path of questions and information that reinforce that stance, whereas a student who self-identifies as a heavy drinker will be informed of harm-reduction tools.

Recent research on the program showed that students who completed the course reduced their alcohol intake, reduced the incidents of heavy episodic drinking patterns and had lower rates of blackouts. The program also was shown to increase the prevalence of alcohol-abstaining behavior for first-year students.

Student Affairs officials and the Alcohol Advisory Board have been considering implementing the program for three years as an alcohol risk-reduction tool. The board ran a pilot program last year with 50 students and found that the majority of them rated the program highly and supported its use at Stanford.

Greg Boardman, vice provost for student affairs, approved the program late last year, and the President's Fund provided most of the money to cover the $22,500 per-year cost for a four-year contract. All incoming freshmen are required to complete the course, as are new fraternity or sorority members. The Office of Judicial Affairs may also use it as an educational tool for alcohol-related cases; residence deans can use it as a first-level response for students who encounter alcohol problems in their residences; and the Athletic Department may use the program for its student-athletes as part of its ongoing life-skills program.

Provost John Etchemendy was one of only a few administrators who completed the course online. "I'm glad Student Affairs is trying to address the issue of student drinking head-on," Etchemendy said. "But whether a required alcohol education program like this will be effective with our students is an open question, and I'm anxious to see the results of this experiment. It is very much an empirical question."