The high rate of heavy drinking in college (see O’Malley & Johnston, 2002
; Wechsler, Lee, Kuo, & Lee, 2000
), coupled with the serious consequences that heavy drinking often has for young adults (see Jackson, Sher, & Park, 2005
; Perkins, 2002
), has sparked deep concerns among parents of college and college-bound students (American Medical Association, 2001
), has seized the attention of college administrators (Angelo, 2004
), and has prompted public officials to identify heavy drinking by college students as a major public health hazard (Task Force of the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2002a
). Consequently, identifying risk factors for collegiate drinking, especially those risk factors that are potentially modifiable, represents an important public health effort. A substantial body of resulting research has identified a number of risk factors associated with the heavy-drinking behavior of college students, including person-based factors such as implusive/disinhibited personality traits and alcohol outcome expectancies as well as ostensible environmental factors such as membership in Greek social organizations (see Jackson et al., 2005
A particularly notable research finding is that, while in high school, college-bound high school seniors drink less heavily than their noncollege-bound peers, but go on to drink more heavily (i.e., more frequent heavy drinking occasions, but not necessarily more frequent drinking overall) than those peer in the years immediately after high school (O’Malley & Johnston, 2002
). Thus, the transition to college is accompanied by a major change in drinking behavior that occurs over a relatively brief time span. Unfortunately, however, the phenomenon of increased drinking during the transition to college has received relatively little attention in the research literature. In fact, we have been able to identify only three prospective studies that focus on the college-transition period, one multi-campus study (Monitoring the Future [MTF]; Johnston, O’Malley, Bachman, & Schulenberg, 2005
; McCabe et al., 2005
) and two single-campus studies (Baer, Kivlahan, & Marlatt, 1995
; Read, Wood, & Capone, 2005
). The MTF study, with its multi-stage random sampling of multiple cohorts over a 30-year period, provides a broad overview of longitudinal alcohol-use trends among high school students and young adults in the United States, including those in college; however, the breadth of MTF is achieved at the cost of depth, in that very few correlates of precollegiate drinking are assessed. The other two prospective studies take a more in-depth look at drinking across the college transition by examining a number of potential correlates, although in relatively small, single-institution samples that may not be representative of students at the institutions at which the studies were conducted. For example, Baer et al. (1995)
found that male sex, history of conduct problems, and fraternity/sorority residence were risk factors for increased drinking from the senior year in high school to the freshman year of college; however, because of this study’s focus on heavy drinkers, the sample in this study consisted entirely of individuals who were heavy drinkers in high school, thus excluding those individuals who showed changes from abstinence or light drinking to heavy drinking. More recently, Read et al. (2005)
tested a structural model and observed prospective reciprocal effects between social-influence variables (alcohol offers and peer use/attitudes) and alcohol use across the college transition; however, these findings were based on a convenience sample of less than 25% of the entering students at the study university. Although each of the above three studies sheds light on the issue of heavy drinking across the transition to college, additional studies are needed in which researchers couple a more in-depth, multivariate approach with a more representative sample.
The primary goal of the present report is to characterize those precollege variables that predict heavy drinking during the first semester of college. The predictor variables, drawn from a number of different pertinent domains, are sex, ethnicity, age, precollege substance use, precollege background variables (academic preparation for college, status as a first generation college student, wellness, religion and religiosity, participation in high school sports), precollege college-related motivation, and precollege drinking environment. This study is based on data collected in the first two waves (precollege baseline [wave 0] and first semester of college [wave 1]) of a larger multivariate prospective study of a cohort of entering first-time college (FTC) students at a large Midwestern university. Other reports that focus on a variety of issues of theoretical importance have been and are being generated with data from this larger study (e.g., Grekin & Sher, in press
; Grekin, Sher, & Wood, in press
; Park, Sher, & Krull, 2006
); however, in the present report, we use data from this study to address a simple but critically important public health question: “How well can we predict first-semester college drinking from a brief assessment administered prior to college entry and what precollege variables are the strongest predictors?” Answers to this question can help identify those individuals most at risk for excessive drinking (and thus, potential targets for indicated prevention efforts) as well as variables that imply important etiological processes that prevention programs can target.
In addition, in order to contextualize the current findings and lay the groundwork for more complex and extensive, multivariate analyses, we describe our study sample in some detail with respect to both ascertainment and retention biases and the overall representativeness of the sample.