Study Shows Inverse Relationship Between Alcohol Abuse and Academic Performance of College Students
by Joe Savrock (November 2009)
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — College students who engage in binge drinking tend to earn lower grades than students who don’t abuse alcohol, according to a newly released report.
The Center for the Study of Collegiate Mental Health (CSCMH) at Penn State conducted a study that shows a clear link between alcohol abuse, mental health symptoms, and academic performance. The study’s data illustrate a strong inverse correlation between grade-point average and consumption of alcoholic beverages.
“Although the data don’t allow us to make cause-and-effect statements, it is clear that among students who seek help at university counseling centers, those who report greater levels of alcohol abuse, including binge drinking, do not perform as well academically,” said Jeffrey A. Hayes, professor of counseling psychology in the College of Education and researcher for CSCMH. Co-investigators of the study were CSCMH researchers Benjamin D. Locke, affiliate assistant professor of counseling psychology, and Dennis Heitzmann, affiliate professor of counseling psychology.
The comprehensive CSCMH report is based on responses from 28,000 students who sought counseling at 66 colleges and universities in the fall 2008 semester. The students provided feedback on a range of counseling issues. Among the issues are campus violence, alcohol and substance abuse, eating disorders and body image concerns, military experience, trauma, and religion and spirituality.
More than 15,000 students responded to questions about binge drinking. The students were asked to reflect over a two-week period preceding their counseling session and then answer the question, “How many times have you had five or more drinks in a row (for males) or four or more drinks in a row (for females)?” A drink was defined as a bottle of beer, a glass of wine, a wine cooler, a shot glass of liquor, or a mixed drink.
The report shows a definite link between the number of binge drinking episodes and grade-point average—the students who abused alcohol more frequently also had lower GPAs.
Students who had not abused alcohol during the two-week period held an average GPA of 3.19; for those who had one occurrence of binge drinking, the average GPA was 3.11.
Higher incidence of alcohol abuse corresponded directly with lower GPAs. Students who had two incidents of binge drinking held a 3.06 GPA; those with 3 to 5 incidents, 3.04; those with 6 to 9 incidents, 2.98; and those with 10 or more incidents, 2.95.
“We suspect that the relationship between binge drinking and academic performance would be even stronger in the general student population than in this sample of students who sought help at university counseling centers,” noted Hayes. “This year, we will be conducting another nationally representative study to test that hypothesis.”
Those students who engaged in the most binge drinking represented a small portion of the populace: Only 2.4 percent of the students reported 6 to 9 occurrences in the period, and about 1 percent reported 10 or more occurrences. More than half of the students had not abused alcohol in the previous two weeks.
The report produced some additional findings:
- Of the students who reported the most frequent binge drinking (three or more incidents in the two weeks), 41 percent indicated that other people were concerned about their drinking.
- Only 5 percent of the students had sought prior treatment for alcohol and drug use. Of these, 26 percent engaged in some level of binge drinking in the two-week period.
- Almost half of the students who engaged in 10 or more binge drinking episodes indicated that they have seriously considered suicide.
“The culture of alcohol abuse on college campuses endangers the academic performance, general well-being, and at times, the very lives of students,” said Hayes. “As educators who invest in the future of young people, as mental health professionals concerned with helping students fulfill their potential, and as parents who entrust our children to institutions of higher learning, we cannot afford an attitude of indifference toward binge drinking and similar behaviors that jeopardize the welfare of college students and others.”