Hazardous alcohol use by young adults goes far beyond college campuses

December 14, 2005

Despite recent media attention given to drinking among the college crowd, at-risk alcohol use is neither unique to, nor necessarily the highest among, individuals who complete college, according to a new study. Results are published in the December issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

"Alcohol use can begin as early as childhood, but typically begins during the teen years, and increases steadily from adolescence into young adulthood, where it reaches its highest lifetime level," said C. Raymond Bingham, a research associate professor in the division of social and behavioral analysis, Transportation Research Institute, and in the department of psychiatry, School of Medicine, at the University of Michigan.

"Although college is typically known for frequent partying and alcohol consumption, individuals who do not attend college also on average experience their highest lifetime levels of alcohol consumption when they are young adults," said Bingham, also the first author of the study. "Contributing factors likely include increased numbers of peers who have legal access to alcohol, reaching age 21 and being able to legally purchase alcohol for one's self, increased autonomy and individuation from parents, a process of exploration and experimentation that is typical of late adolescent and early young adult psychosocial development, and the lack of adult roles and responsibilities - such as marriage and parenting - that might moderate alcohol use."

It would be incorrect, therefore, to assume that non-college-attending young adults are at a lower alcohol-related risk than college undergraduates, he added.

To further explore patterns of alcohol use during early adulthood, Bingham and his colleagues accessed data gathered in a larger prevention study in which participants (n=1,987) were originally recruited in the fifth or sixth grade. Participants were asked about their alcohol use by survey in the 12th grade and again by telephone around 24 years of age. None of the young adults in the analyses had ever been married or had children. Three groups were formed based on completed education when the participants were surveyed at age 24: high school or less, post-secondary education without a four-year college degree, and completed four-year college degree or more.

Bingham said there were four key findings:

  • Alcohol-related risk is not only a concern in populations of college students.

    "Non-college attending/graduating young adults experience levels of risk that equal those of their college-graduating age mates," said Bingham.

  • Men who completed college experienced the greatest increase in at-risk drinking from grade 12 to young adulthood; however, their at-risk alcohol use at age 24 did not differ markedly from the young men in the other education groups.

    "Men and women who completed college showed the greatest increases in the frequency of drunkenness and heavy episodic drinking from 12th grade to young adulthood," said Bingham. "This increase was especially remarkable for men who completed college and went from having the lowest frequencies of drunkenness and heavy episodic drinking among men in 12th grade to having the highest rates of all groups of men and women in young adulthood. College-completing women increased their frequencies of drunkenness and heavy episodic drinking more than other women, but rather than surpassing the other groups, by age 24 college-completing women had merely caught up with their same-sex peers who had completed less formal education."

  • Men and women who did not complete any formal education beyond high school had the highest levels of alcohol consumption, drunkenness and heavy episodic drinking in 12th grade, which continued into young adulthood.

    "In essence," said Bingham, "men and women who did not complete more than a high-school education had high alcohol-related risk, as measured by drunkenness and heavy episodic drinking while in the 12th grade, and remained at the same level into young adulthood, while levels for the other groups increased."

  • From 12th grade to young adulthood, all groups of men and women showed a typical increase in their average alcohol consumption, with men increasing more than women.

    "Men had consistently higher levels of all alcohol risk measures than women," said Bingham. "Men also showed greater increases in alcohol consumption than women. These findings are common in the literature, and are not unique to this study."

    "Our research helps to emphasize that all young adults are generally at high alcohol-related risk, and this risk highlights the need for research, program development, and interventions to address the needs of non-college, as well as college-completing, young adults," said Bingham. "This will represent a considerable challenge. While the population of college students is quite homogeneous and easy to isolate because they are on campuses, the population of individuals who do not attend college is much more diverse, and less easy to isolate. It includes individuals in various areas of labor, attending a wide variety of educational programs, and following a large number of distinct developmental and lifestyle pathways. This diversity will make this group harder to recruit into studies, more difficult to maintain in samples, and will also increase the challenge of designing studies that can yield clear results that are not clouded by this group's heterogeneity."
    Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research (ACER) is the official journal of the Research Society on Alcoholism and the International Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism. Co-authors of the ACER paper, "Drinking Behavior from High School to Young Adulthood: Differences by College Education," were Jean T. Shope of the Transportation Research Institute, as well as the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education in the School of Public Health, at the University of Michigan; and Xianli Tang, who was a graduate student in the Department of Biostatistics in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan at the time of the study. The study was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

    Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

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