More School, Less Spirit: Why Young People Are Drinking Less Alcohol

College kids on both sides of the Atlantic are drinking much less than they did 30 years ago. But the true teetotalers here are non-college kids.


British undergrads these days are suspiciously sober, says the Financial Times. And pub owners think they know the culprit. It's tuition.

The British government decided two years ago to let universities raise tuition fees from £3,375 to £9000. Confronted by tighter budgets and poorer post-graduation job prospects, students have traded beers for books. "Nine thousand pounds is a sobering enough number for anybody," the chief executive of Britain's biggest nightclub operator told the paper.

Although £3,375 to £9000 is a big jump percentage-wise, £9000 looks like a Black Friday discount next to the average cost of attending college in the U.S. this year: $18,391 for public and $40,917 for private, according to the College Board. Even adjusting for inflation, that's a roughly $5,000 and $8,000 hike, respectively, from a decade ago, and, at this point, some schools are pretty much tacking on an extra $1,000 to their tuition each year.

In fact, American co-eds are also slightly less besotted than they used to be. According to the ongoing Monitoring the Future study run by the University of Michigan, alcohol consumption rates for college students have been decreasing slowly but steadily for the past three decades.

But here's the thing: They haven't been decreasing anywhere near as dramatically as the rates for people of the same age group who aren't in college. In other words, young people are drinking less, and college students are drinking relatively more.

The Shape of American Asceticism 

Let's take a look, first, at the number of college-aged individuals who say they've had a sip of alcohol in the past month.

Second, here's a different measure of alcohol use, looking at binge drinking:

If you saw just the "full-time college students" trend lines from those two graphs on their own, you might think that, just as British students are (allegedly) responding to a quick, dramatic jump in tuition with a quick, dramatic drop in drinking, American students are responding to rising tuition by gradually scaling back their alcohol intake.

But when you look at the lines for non-student college-age young adults, that story doesn't look so convincing. If anything, it looks like American college drinking has held remarkably steady in the face of a secular trend away from alcohol consumption. Even teetotalers, according to Monitoring the Future numbers, have become more common in the young adult population. (Though the change is most pronounced among high schoolers. Somewhere my 10th grade health teacher is feeling very satisfied.)

Of course, it's possible that recent economic instability has cut into partying. Here, let's zoom in on the past ten years, with to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services chart from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health:

The FT piece on UK students suggests that students are staying sober in the library stacks because they're nervous about the economy. Looking at these figures, one could tell the same story about American students: Around 2007-2008, the financial crisis is making headlines every day, and they start worrying about being able to find a job come graduation.

The Sociology of Binge-Drinking

But the best case for a link between economic factors and young adult alcohol consumption has nothing to do with seniors worrying about jobs or sophomores worrying about tuition. Instead, it has to do with the gap between the young adults who go to college and those who don't.

Monitoring the Future has found that as of high school, "college-bound 12th graders are consistently less likely than their non-college-bound counterparts to report occasions of heavy drinking." But that all changes when they go to college, where they "catch up to and pass their peers in binge drinking." Why is that?

Well, to point out the obvious, binge drinking is a bit easier on a student schedule than on a working schedule, meaning that college students may favor partying on weekends over moderate daily drinking. In fact, the only area in which non-students out-drink students, the study authors point out, is in daily drinking (although that accounts for a pretty small portion of respondents in both groups). That has been true since 1980.

Another factor might be that college attendance tends to correlate with socioeconomic status: The individuals who go to college may have more money to spend on booze.

The authors of the study, however, point to a slightly different aspect of this socioeconomic difference: "We have shown," the authors say, "that this differential change after high school is largely attributable to the fact that college students are more likely to leave the parental home and less likely to get married in the four years after high school graduation than their age mates." And the effect is heightened if the student joins a fraternity or sorority.

In other words, researchers have confirmed some conventional wisdom: Living with your parents? It really is a party-killer. And people do, in fact, "settle down," in more ways than one, upon marrying.

All of which raises the possibility of a trend piece about American Millennials that looks nothing like the one the FT ran about British students. More Millennials are moving back in with their parents after graduation, and most are putting marriage off until their mid-to-late 20s. Perhaps we can look forward this the beginning of sober twenties spent at home and trashed thirties spent at singles' mixers?