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  • Female College Drinking and the Social Learning Theory:An Examination of the Developmental Transition Period from High School to College
  • Joseph W. LaBrie (bio), Karie Huchting (bio), Eric R. Pedersen (bio), Justin F. Hummer (bio), Kristin Shelesky (bio), and Summer Tawalbeh (bio)

Problematic drinking among college students remains a national issue with large percentages of college students reporting heavy episodic or binge drinking (Wechsler, Dowdall, Davenport, & Castillo, 1995) and experiencing severe alcohol-related consequences ranging from poor academic performance, to sexual assault, vandalism, and even death (Hingson, Heeren, Winter, & Wechsler, 2005; Wechsler et al., 2002). According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA, 2002), the first 6 weeks on a college campus are critical to first-year student success. However, during these first weeks many students initiate heavy drinking that may interfere with their ability to adapt to campus life, and patterns of drinking established during these first weeks persist throughout college (Schulenberg et al., 2001). Approximately one third of first-year students fail to enroll for their second year due to difficulties with the transition to college (Upcraft, 1995). Drinking may compromise successful negotiation of the transition into college and therefore jeopardize overall collegiate success. Therefore, the ability to identify specific students as they enter college who may develop problematic drinking patterns and related negative consequences would allow student affairs personnel to more effectively design and target risk-reduction programs and interventions.

Drinking During the Transition to College

The transition to college from high school presents a range of academic, social, and developmental challenges and has been characterized as a "developmental disturbance" whereby young adults must navigate several tasks, often without high school support networks (Schulenberg et al., 2001). Heavy drinking, alcohol-related problems, and risky or illegal behaviors peak during late adolescence and early adulthood (Baer & Carney, 1993). Ongoing problematic behaviors, including substance abuse and binge drinking, may reflect difficulties with the transition and indicate inadequate coping with developmental tasks (Hurrelmann, 1990). Alcohol may play a paradoxical role during this transition. Despite the possibility for serious harm from heavy drinking, drinking also may serve [End Page 344] important constructive functions such as making friends, demonstrating a more mature status, or exploring personal identities (e.g., Chassin, Presson, & Sherman, 1989; Jessor, 1987; Silbereisen & Eyferth, 1986).

Female College Students

Drinking may be of particular concern for female students. Recent evidence suggests that female college students are drinking at levels relatively comparable to their male peers, with binge drinking rates approaching those of college men (e.g., O'Malley & Johnston, 2002; Wechsler et al., 2002; Young, Morales, McCabe, Boyd, & D'Arcy, 2005). For example, rates of frequent binge drinking among college women have increased significantly in the past decade, and nearly 40% of college women report binge drinking and 20% report binge drinking three or more times in the previous 2 weeks (Wechsler et al., 2002). These statistics interact with physiological gender differences to put women at greater risk than men at comparable levels of drinking. These differences include body size, enzyme levels, and fluctuating hormones, which contribute to women becoming intoxicated more quickly than men at similar consumption levels and lower BAC levels (Jones & Jones, 1976; NIAAA, 1990; Perkins, 2000). Overall, smaller quantities of alcohol are needed to produce an intoxicating effect in women than in men, placing women at greater risk for negative consequences, including alcohol poisoning.

Many college women may be unaware of these differences and feel pressure to drink heavily. Findings suggest that heavy alcohol consumption among college women afforded them with positive attention from male peers but also increased vulnerability to sexual assault (Young et al., 2005). Although women often drink for similar reasons as men, including relaxing, fitting in, and decreased inhibition, women also may drink because of a desire for intimate relationships (Vince-Whitman & Cretella, 1999), even as heavy drinking places them at risk for negative sexual consequences (Hingson et al., 2005). Over 50% of all sexual assaults of college students involve alcohol use (see review by Abbey, 2002), and college women who consume alcohol are three to nine times more likely to experience sexual aggression than those who do not drink (Parks & Fals-Stewart, 2004). Further, the first year in...


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