NBC News
updated 10/26/2003 2:10:45 PM ET 2003-10-26T19:10:45

It’s been rated the top party school in the nation. Welcome to a typical party night on campus at the University of Colorado. Alcohol abuse has long been one of the most serious problems facing America’s colleges — national studies show about four out of every 10 students qualify as binge drinkers. So what are schools doing to stop it? “Dateline” spent part of the past school year at the University of Colorado, where leaders are determined to reform the campus culture of drinking. How are they doing? NBC’s Josh Mankiewicz has a sobering look.

It's a hot August night. A new school year is starting. At the University of Colorado in Boulder, there’s a party in progress, and the guest of honor is in a plastic cup. It turns out the drug of choice at many college campuses isn’t cocaine or even marijuana. It’s alcohol.

This party could be happening nearly any night at Boulder, an academic community of 22,000 undergrads in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Known there as “C.U.,” it’s a school with a reputation for scholarship, skiing and alcohol-fueled extra-curricular activities.

Tonight’s party at C.U. is no different. Almost everyone drinks. Some drink too much. Often the police come to shut down these gatherings and the students run away because many of these student drinkers are under the legal age of 21. They buy alcohol with a fake ID or they have someone else do it for them. Meet Nick Hanson, a junior, a marketing major. Nick is in training.

Nick: “It’s taken a long time to get my body in shape to where I can handle that much drinking.”

How much? Nick says 15 to 20 drinks a night, often several times a week.

Nick: “We have 12 beers before we even leave to go out.”

We’re not talking about just drinking here, we’re talking about binge drinking. Technically, that’s when a woman downs four drinks in an evening or a man consumes five drinks. And one national survey found that 40 percent of America’s college students routinely drink that much or more, and that every year that kind of drinking accounts for 70,000 cases of sexual assault and 1,400 deaths from things like alcohol poisoning, falls and car accidents. It is an issue that America’s college presidents say is a matter of life and death. But it’s an issue that America’s college students see differently. At Boulder, for example, we found a lot of binge drinkers. And for them, four or five drinks is just a first course.

At the beginning of the 2002 school year, “Dateline” came to Boulder, invited by both school administrators and by students themselves. We weren’t undercover, we told students we were doing a story on the party scene here. And we spent several weeks watching campus life, videotaping students who offered to let us see what they do after class. It was at the local party scene that we met Nick and his pal Keiven Cosgriff.

Nick: “Study hard play, that’s all we have to do.”

Keiven: “Study hard, play hard.”

Study hard, play hard. Keiven tells us that’s his mantra. We were not in a position to know how hard he studies, but his dedication to hard drinking is undeniable. Keiven’s 20, a political science and sociology major who says he’s on his way to law school. He shows off his tattoo.

Josh Mankiewicz: “How hammered were you that night?”

Keiven: “I was significantly intoxicated. Definitely.”

Mankiewicz: “And that would be how many drinks? Five? Ten?”

Keiven: “No, it was definitely more than five. I’d say in the 10 to 15 range.”

Like Nick, Keiven admits he wasn’t born with his current tolerance for alcohol — that only comes with practice.

Keiven: “The social scene that I’m interested in revolves around it.”

Mankiewicz: “Revolves around drinking that much.”

Keiven: “Drinking that much. See it’s all about your perspective. Like to you that’s a lot but to me that’s the norm when people go out.”

And it’s not just the boys. Lily is a senior, just turning 21. At Boulder, and many other campuses, that means a birthday ritual of consuming 21 drinks. Lily’s girlfriends help her keep track by marking her arm with every drink. Eight drinks, and Lily is just getting started. As the alcohol continues to flow, the first thing to go is that clever marking system. By the middle of the night Lily has lost track of how much she’s had to drink.

Lily: “So I had, oh, I had at least three shots and two beers at that bar, so that’s five more. Here, I’ve had at least two shots. I’ve had at least 20.”

Twenty drinks, and to us, Lily doesn’t even seem that drunk. She tells us that’s because she can drink like a guy.

Lily: “I have a lot of guy friends and I drink with them a lot and guys have a tendency to be able to handle their alcohol a lot better, so I just have grown accustomed to drinking a lot more. I’m proud of it. I don’t know why I am, but I am.”

Proud to be able to keep up with the boys. But there are some in Boulder who could never keep up with Lily, like the school’s chancellor, Richard Bynny.

Bynny: “I think that if you or I had four or five drinks in a row in a bar, we would be pretty dysfunctional.”

Mankiewicz: “Deeply asleep in my case.”

Bynny: [laughs] “Yeah, that’s right.”

Seven years ago when Bynny took this job, he found himself dealing with a university in an alcohol induced crisis. Drunken students rioted after a football game. They rioted after student parties were shut down. One time they rioted after a crackdown on underage drinking. Bynny resolved to change that.

Bynny: “Our job is to work with them, and try and figure out, you know, how can we get across to them the importance of finding other venues for having fun.”

So in what amounted to a sort of large-scale intervention, the university tried to change its own culture, with dry events like casino night, mandatory sessions for freshmen on the fallout of too much drinking, and a program called “three strikes, you’re out.”

Get caught once with alcohol or drugs and you go to a substance-abuse class; twice and the school calls your parents; three times and you can be suspended. That’s happened to only 84 students since the program started in 2000.

C.U. is one of the first universities to make a serious effort to deal with student drinking, and that’s one of the reasons “Dateline” came here. The chancellor says his innovations are working. Some students aren’t as sure.

Keiven: “You know, they tell you in orientation that three strikes you’re out and all that nonsense. I just didn’t take them seriously.”

Consider the effectiveness of one program: a ban on alcohol sales at C.U. football games. We went along with hard-drinking Nick and Keiven to the first big game of the school year, C.U. vs. Colorado State. The kickoff was set for 11 a.m. But the party in the stadium parking lot kicked off a lot earlier.

Nick: “It was an 11:00 game, so we were up at 7:30. We got at the stadium at like 8:00.”

Mankiewicz: “OK, 8:00 A.M. Have you had a beer at that point?”

Nick: “Yeah.”

Mankiewicz: “Three hours to go ‘till game time.”

Nick: “Uh-huh.”

Mankiewicz: “How many drinks do you have?”

Nick: “I think I had a lot.”

Mankiewicz: “Five? Ten?”

Nick: “Ten plus. I don’t, I’m not totally sure.”

What is sure is that even with police on the scene, for some of these underage drinkers that alcohol ban has become meaningless.

Mankiewicz: “I just get the feeling that the students kind of confound you at every turn. I mean you make the stadium dry, well they drink in the parking lot. And they get up early and start drinking before the game, because they’re going to make sure that they get that daily dose of alcohol.”

Bynny: “Yup.”

Mankiewicz: “Whether you like it or not.”

Bynny: “I believe that that’s right. As you know, people who are devious can find ways around most rules. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set standards for a community.”

Keiven: “They’re trying to keep student drunkenness to a minimum, that’s they’re objective.”

Nick: “That’s a lie. That’s not going to happen.”

Keiven: “That’s their goal, but the students have a philosophy of saying, you know, f*** the administration.”

And if what you’re about to say is that parents ought to exercise more control, remember Lily’s 21st birthday? Well, her mother was there, helping Lily celebrate.

Mom: “Oh that’s, yeah, see now this is what my husband and I have been arguing about. He says it’s terribly bad form, but she’s 21 years old and it’s like a rite of passage and not only will she have a few drinks, she’ll probably get drunk. And she might even get sick. And, you know, it’s just something you go through.”

Remember that mantra of ‘study hard, play hard’? Surveys make clear that the more you party the less you study. But on the other side of that equation is the simple fact that in college, in that awkward nether-world between childhood and adulthood, alcohol is the lubricant that makes a lot of social interaction possible.

Keiven: “Hey, zoom in on the sober driver. Sober driver. Yeah.”

Students say they know not to drink and then get behind the wheel. But that’s where the alcohol lesson ends.

Mankiewicz: “You guys have clearly gotten the message that drinking and driving is a bad idea. That it can have serious legal and health impact on you. But you don’t seem to have gotten any sort of similar message about binge drinking. That’s still sort of done and accepted.”

Keiven: “Yeah well, yeah, you can— like all the eggheads in academia they tell you, you know, ‘If you hit the sauce that hard it’s not good for you,’ you know, probably physically and emotionally. But for whatever reason, my generation, at least the people that I socialize with, thousands and thousands of undergraduates, don’t feel that it’s an issue and aren’t concerned about it. This is a social scene. This is like what people do, they go out and have a good time.”

Mankiewicz: “So what might seem abnormal to me is actually normal behavior around here?”

Keiven: “It really is. Like, I don’t know, it’s frightening for especially someone your age, and maybe possibly your background, to relate to, but this is what’s going on these days.”

But if Keiven is defiant, his best friend is less so. Remember when we met him, Nick Hanson was in training. When we came back at the end of the semester, we found a different Nick.

Nick: “I kind of scared myself, so I started to slow down then. Realized that I gotta, sort of get my ass in shape I guess.”

Mankiewicz: “You know, I apologize for sounding like somebody’s Dad here.”

Nick: “Yeah.”

Mankiewicz: “But you’re too young to have a drinking problem like that.”

Nick: “Definitely.”

He doesn’t believe he’s an alcoholic, which might be why he hasn’t quit completely. But for now Nick says he’s drinking a lot less.

Mankiewicz: “So you’re not getting buzzed anymore?”

Nick: “No.”

Mankiewicz: “You miss that?”

Nick: “No.”

Nick even went to a football game— sober.

Mankiewicz: “How was it?”

Nick: “It was good. It was the same thing. I mean, you kind of got pissed at all the drunk people but...”

It took awhile, but one student seems to have learned a valuable lesson. Every September though, a new freshman class will arrive, 5,000 more students who will make their own choices about how much is too much.

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