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By Gary Brown
The adage of death and taxes being the only certainties in life could probably take on a third conviction if it was up to presidents and chancellors – and that is that college students in the main like to drink.
At least that’s what a lot of leaders say certainly is occurring on their campuses, and they’d like to have something done about it. During a recent discussion among about 50 presidents and chancellors of Division III schools regarding whether to implement a national, year-round drug-testing program in that division, they said they’d rather keep the drug-testing program relegated to championships and devote more resources to mitigating alcohol misuse.
As a result, Division III is now developing an innovative program that tackles such substance-abuse challenges on college campuses. And while that kind of intervention isn’t unprecedented, this particular version is noteworthy because of its collaborative approach between athletics and student affairs.
The NCAA-funded partnership with NASPA (an association of student affairs administrators in higher education) is the first of its kind designed to develop educational and intervention programming that is effective for students and student-athletes alike. The initiative came to be when the Division III Presidents Council, after a two-year drug education and testing pilot and feedback from the Division III membership, opted not to fund a year-round drug-testing program for individual schools and conferences but instead develop a broader educational approach that incorporates more campus-wide energy.
Two representative working groups already have been busy designing programs and delivery tactics. One includes about a half dozen national experts in the field of alcohol misuse prevention and intervention who will advise on what the content of the program should be, based on empirical evidence on what works and what doesn’t. The other group comprises about a dozen representatives from Division III schools – from coaches and student-athletes to vice presidents and professors – who will recommend how that content should be delivered on campuses.
The project also includes a steering committee composed of leadership from the NCAA and NASPA.
The long-term goal is for “the collaborative” to offer a training and implementation program to help campuses establish the infrastructure necessary to effectively use and sustain this resource over time. It also includes a promotional effort to communicate the value of the resource to different campuses audiences, ranging from presidents and faculty to the practitioners in student affairs and athletics.
Two better than one
About 20 Division III schools will take part in a two-year pilot program beginning this fall. The full program is expected to be ready by the fall of 2014.
What officials say they like about the partnership is that it combines two powerful entities that can accomplish more together than apart.
“The NCAA has the resources and research, and NASPA has the people and relationships,” said Tim Millerick, vice president for student affairs and athletics at Austin College who serves on the working group devoted to content delivery. “So many athletics officers in Division III now answer to VPs in student affairs – NASPA has those people to whom athletics reports, which means they can apply leverage to follow through in the application of whatever programs are developed.”
Leah Kareti, formerly the director of Division III at the NCAA national office and now a contractor for the division who oversees special projects like this one, said the effort supports the Division III strategic-positioning platform and offers tangible examples of campus integration.
“This responds to the membership’s desire not to enter into a year-round drug-testing arrangement, and to a presidential concern that the biggest campus concern is related to alcohol,” Kareti said. “And because athletics is not necessarily the expert in this area, we’re collaborating with someone who is. The reason it’s different from anything else out there is the fact that we’re not selling anything. We’re relying on empirical scientific studies to determine the most effective initiatives we can deliver for free to our membership.”
It’s more than just putting the crashed-up car in the quad with a sign saying, “Don’t drink and drive.” While that’s a striking visual, it’s an expensive and ineffective deterrent. Rather, Kareti and others say the menu of programming will be based on what already is known to be effective and then tailored to the student and student-athlete populations. Kareti likened the approach to a restaurant menu, “only we’ll teach you what to order,” she said.
“We’re not just going to throw a website up there and say, ‘Here it is; go use it,’ ” Kareti said. “There will be a lot of thought given to recommended implementation on campus. There will be a certain ‘turn-key’ element to it that says, ‘Here’s a messaging tactic you can use with your students that has been empirically proven and here’s how you do it. And here’s what an implementation team looks like and here’s who should be on it.’ That way, the effort becomes institutionalized.”
The content working group is charged with developing programs that target alcohol in the first year of the project and expand to include other drugs in future years. The resource will be applicable to the general campus and will address specific needs of Division III student-athletes.
The delivery working group is charged with ensuring collaboration among athletics and other campus branches in managing the resources and implementing the programs.
“At the end of all of this, we are going to emerge with a product that will make a difference at more than 450 campuses and in the lives of thousands of students,” said delivery group member Gary Williams, associate director of athletics for education services at Carthage College. “And the collaborative element is so crucial. There can sometimes be an ‘us vs. them’ attitude between athletics and the rest of the campus. Not with this, though. We are all ‘us.’ ”
Personal Feedback Intervention
The first year of the pilot will focus primarily on what’s called a “Personalized Feedback Intervention,” which is an online instrument that, after a brief survey, provides feedback to students about their behavior and that of their peers. Immediately after completing a survey that includes questions about reasons for drinking, perceived norms and drinking behavior, students receive feedback detailing their own drinking behavior, their perceptions of typical student drinking, and actual typical student drinking. This mechanism has been empirically shown to reduce the negative consequences of alcohol use by college students.
Jason Kilmer, a Ph.D. and research assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Washington, said the personalized feedback is intended “to prompt thinking about changing one’s alcohol use by considering the impact on domains that might be of importance to the student, such as time spent intoxicated and how this affects driving, class attendance or practice the next day.”
“We then take it a step further by reviewing what strategies a student is already using to reduce risks or harms,” Kilmer said. “Finally, the student receives a list of other strategies to reduce risks or harms that he or she is not currently using but could consider adopting.”
The idea is to have student-athletes understand their alcohol use, compare it against both perceived and actual norms, and then realize the practical effects of that use on their daily lives. For student-athletes, understanding alcohol’s effects on performance can hit home.
In addition to the Personalized Feedback Intervention, the program will involve a campus assessment, or self-study, designed to help schools assess where they can improve their current policies, educational programs and enforcement mechanisms. There also will be a best-practices tool that will include information from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism about the empirically proven levels of effectiveness of different intervention strategies. Those two components will likely influence the second year of the pilot.
NASPA President Kevin Kruger said the project’s impact should exceed that of its predecessors.
“We’ve all been at this for a while – alcohol abuse remains one of the most significant issues facing higher education,” he said. “It has all kinds of negative implications for students, including poor academic performance, violence, vandalism – it’s one of the major inhibitors to college completion, actually.
“What’s good about this partnership is that it recognizes for the college athlete – who experiences the campus in a variety of dimensions (classroom, co-curricular and athletics) – some of the most influential people in their lives are their coaches and trainers. So we’re trying to identify a concerted, educational effort that reinforces a common approach across various departments.”
He also praised the people involved, calling them “some of the best minds in the country” who can devise a strategy of how to work with students.
“In the language of alcohol educators, it’s an evidence-based or an evidence-informed approach,” Kruger said. “They are choosing strategies that have evidence that help inform our practice. Let’s try the things that we know have shown to work in real life settings.
“Students don’t interact with us based on how we structure campus departments – they just live their lives. So we need to make sure the curriculum we offer spans across all departments.”