Ask Elizabeth, a student at Northwestern University, what the best part of freshman year was and she'll have one answer: the ease of procuring vodka. She drank wine coolers her senior year of high school, but those were tough to find; once she hit college, all she had to do was ring up an upperclassman. Soon she was drinking "all day, every day" while her classmates were on a different social schedule: all night, every Saturday. "I would literally sit at my desk in class with a plastic bottle full of vodka," she remembers of her freshman year. "It could have been a liter each day. Shots in the morning, the middle of the day, before dinner, after dinner: all day long it was like water."
At first, she thought no one could keep up with her. Soon, she couldn't even keep up with herself. Elizabeth dropped out of Northwestern twice, pursuing in-treatment and residential counseling for alcoholism. It took two tries, but at 20, she went back to her suburban campus with a new major and a passion for her atypical extracurricular activity: Alcoholics Anonymous. But unlike other clubs, it was tough to find friends. Within AA's national network, underage alcoholics make up just more than 2 percent of meeting attendees. Does that mean young addicts don't exist? Not according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which says that 21 percent of college students meet the criteria for abusing alcohol. Its research also found that 1,700 college students die each year from alcohol-related injuries, including car crashes. When the Associated Press analyzed federal records in 2008, it found that 157 college-age people drank themselves to death from 1999 through 2005.
When colleges and universities aim to save these students, most focus on binge drinking, create in-name-only "substance free" dorms, and host orientations to provide kids with information they already know: alcohol is illegal if you are under 21, deadly if you drink too much. In 2008, more than 150 college administrators signed the Amethyst Initiative, which aims to lower the legal drinking age, a move they say would reduce campus alcohol problems. Even when efforts like AlcoholEdu—a Web-based program used on many campuses—have been updated, addiction takes a back seat to simpler goals: explaining what it means to be drunk, or suggesting how to deal with a friend who's had one too many.
"Prevention programs on college campuses are designed for people who do not have problems with alcohol to begin with," says Monique Bourgeois, the executive director of the Association of Recovery Schools. Her group, a consortium of more than a dozen schools, is trying to shift programs from one-size-fits-all strategies to new ones that focus on students who've hit rock bottom. "It's time to remove the stigma from having 'those kids' on campus," she says. "Young adults can be alcoholics, too."
Back at Northwestern, Elizabeth returned sober to a campus focused on disciplining drinkers with slipping GPAs. After attending 12-step meetings in the community, she began searching for a group with young addicts like her. In nearby Chicago, members were too old (the average age of an AA participant is 47) for the support she was seeking. So, in April 2008, she approached Northwestern's health center about starting a chapter on campus. She says administrators agreed there was a void, so she began taping up -fliers on campus. After a year, nearly a dozen students had attended a session, but Elizabeth hopes more problem drinkers will get over the stigma of attending an AA meeting on school grounds and experience the benefits. "I don't care if there are haters on campus," she says. "They have no idea what being sober is like—that's why they are haters."
At other schools, off-campus housing and planned activities keep students entertained without the pressure of facing stigma. "When you're young, these meetings become a really important social component," says Lisa Laitman, the director of a leading recovery program at Rutgers, in New Jersey. Her program houses 25 students in unmarked on-campus housing, which was full as of June 2009, with a waiting list. Meanwhile, the young-person's AA meeting held on campus draws more than 200 people each Monday for companionship, confessions, and candlepin bowling. "They do exactly what other college students do," Laitman says. Except this time, they aren't ostracized for doing it sober.