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As the landscape of higher education becomes increasingly diverse, racial and ethnic minorities face numerous obstacles to inclusion, acclimation, and success in their post-secondary education.

In an effort to promote diversity and inclusion on their campus, administrators and researchers at the University of Wisconsin – Madison worked together to study the impact of their school’s drinking culture on “students of color” compared to their “White/Caucasian” peers. In their Color of Drinking study, they surveyed students on their use of alcohol, their perceptions of the campus environment, and connectedness to the university.

Researchers found that “students of color” reported the lowest drinking rates, but were the most likely to have negative experiences as a result of the drinking culture on campus. Nearly half of students of color reported experiencing racial aggression from students who were drinking on their campus. Further, 65% of these students said that the alcohol culture on their campus negatively impacted their college experience including their academic success, social interactions, and sense of safety and comfort.

Research by Satinsky and colleagues in 2017 further supports the harmful nature of college drinking on students of color. They proposed that high-risk drinking in higher education is especially detrimental to marginalized populations on campus, decreasing their academic success and quality of life outcomes and potentially contributing to increased substance use in response. Taken together, these studies solidify the argument that substance abuse prevention in college is not just about reducing risk for those who choose to drink, but also promoting health and wellbeing for all students who experience the campus climate.

Using 2016-17 AlcoholEdu data, we attempted to replicate some of these findings. Similar to the Color of Drinking study, we compared students who identified only as “White/Caucasian” (280,000 students) to all other students (187,000) in their attitudes and behaviors surrounding alcohol. We also found that students of color (American Indian or Alaskan Native, Black or African American, Asian, Hispanic Latino, Native Hawaiian) were much more likely to be abstainers and much less likely to report moderate or heavy alcohol use than their White/Caucasian peers. These students were also less likely to engage in risk-inducing behaviors when drinking (e.g., taking shots, chugging, etc.) and more likely to engage in protective behaviors (e.g., pacing/counting drinks, serving as a designated driver, etc.). Students of color also reported lower levels of illicit substance use of any kind.

Despite these differences, students of color were slightly more likely to report experiencing legal consequences (getting in trouble with authorities, for example) and academic consequences (missing a class or performing poorly on an assignment) as a result of imbibing compared to their White/Caucasian peers. While more work must be done to understand the unique experience of individual racial and ethnic groups, it is clear that students of color are differentially impacted by direct alcohol consumption and by the drinking culture that exists on many college campuses.

These findings suggest that more prevention resources need to be directed towards students of color in higher education, particularly in terms of support for non-drinkers by providing safer environments and more alcohol-free events. Students of color are more likely to experience direct and indirect harms from college drinking, which leads to them feeling less acclimated to their campus and its culture.

When conditions on campus create an environment where groups of students are less likely to thrive academically and socially, the very mission of institutions of higher education is at stake.

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