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On average, fraternity members drink more than others during their college years, a new study by faculty members at the Universities of Missouri and North Carolina at Chapel Hill confirms, but they rapidly reduce their alcohol intake when their university days end.
Sorority members cut back their alcohol use while still in college, researchers found. "The argument has been that Greeks - some of the heaviest drinkers in college - might curtail their drinking for a short time after college to find a job or spouse, for example, but would resume heavy drinking once those goals were achieved," said Dr. Bruce Bartholow, assistant professor of psychology at UNC. "That's not what we found."
Bartholow carried out the study with Drs. Kenneth Sher and Jennifer Krull, both psychology professors at Missouri. It was part of an ongoing larger investigation of alcohol and health-related behaviors that Sher heads. Earlier research by the team suggested that fraternity and sorority members reduced heavy drinking shortly after college, but questions of longer-term alcohol use could not be addressed at the time. Bartholow and colleagues followed 318 students beginning their freshman years at Missouri until they were 7 years post-college, or about age 30. Annually during the study, participants reported their alcohol intake over the previous year via questionnaires, as well as their involvement with fraternities or sororities.
Instead of classifying participants as simply Greek or non-Greek, the team gave them a score ranging from 0 to 20 based on their involvement with a Greek organization throughout their college years. For example, a member who lived in a fraternity house during all four college years would have a higher score than a member who only lived there 1 year.
Similarly, a nonmember who frequently associated with members of fraternities or sororities and attended their parties would have a higher score than a nonmember who never associated with Greeks. "One of the surprising findings in the study was a sex difference," Bartholow said. "Being involved in a fraternity led to increasing levels of alcohol use from freshman to senior year, but being involved in a sorority was associated with decreasing levels of alcohol use from freshman to senior year."
After college, researchers saw a rapid decrease in heavy drinking, particularly for men who had been closely involved in fraternities, he said. After-college drinking levels remained low among all subjects through the final year of the study. Perceptions about friends' drinking levels were an important determinant of participants' own drinking, particularly among those who were heavily involved in the Greek system, Bartholow and colleagues found.
"That suggests that the social environment plays a key role in determining drinking behavior," he said. "We suggest that leaving campus is an important determinant of reducing heavy drinking among those young men heavily involved in Greek life during college."
The scientists concluded that Greek involvement appears to represent a time-limited, situational effect on drinking rather than the early stages of a life-long persistent pattern of heavy drinking, at least for most students.
"We want to be careful not to suggest that heavy drinking during college is not problematic simply because it appears to decrease right afterward for most students," Bartholow said. "Heavy drinking during college represents a significant health risk, not only for drinkers but also for others with whom they interact while intoxicated."
A report on the study appeared recently in Health Psychology, a professional journal (Bartholow BD, Sher KJ, Krull JL, Changes in heavy drinking over the third decade of life as a function of collegiate fraternity and sorority involvement: a prospective, multilevel analysis. Health Psychol 2003;22(6):616-26). This article was prepared by Biotech Week editors from staff and other reports.
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