Admissions

Dorms with No Alcohol Or Drugs

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College housing options may rank near the top of the list of things that can influence your higher education experience. Your memories of dorm, Greek or off-campus living will stay with you the rest of your life and make for some interesting -- and colorful -- stories to share with your children and friends as the years go on.

At some colleges, due to problems associated with over-enrollment, living conditions have started off rather rocky. At Penn State’s University Park campus some years back, dorm space was so scarce that a number of incoming first-years had to live in a screened-off section of the main student union building. How weird is that?


At Princeton University, the overflow of enrollees one year required a gathering of modular homes (a.k.a. “trailers”) on a former athletic field, resulting in what looked like a small retirement community for the elderly. There were some disparaging remarks made about those atypically housed first-years, most of which came from all the other Princetonians who lived in the Gothic splendor of the other vaunted residential colleges.

There is one option, however, that, if I were headed to college today, I would definitely pursue because of its overall qualities and promise: substance-free housing (SFH). If you’re involved in the college process right now or know someone who is a college student who lives on campus, you have probably heard of SFH. What is it and what might be some pros and cons about it?

Think of College Stereotypes

What’s one of the most common images that comes to mind when you picture stereotypes of college life? Fraternity parties? Empty beer kegs flying through windows? Staggering students? The smell of hops, barley and cigarette or marijuana smoke permeating the air? Stereotypes exist for a reason. They’re sometimes quite alarmingly accurate. Think Animal House.

If you are turned off by these kinds of behaviors, then you may want to explore the SFH options at the colleges to which you’re considering applying or where you decide to enroll this spring. I did a search for schools that offer substance-free housing and, as usual, I was overwhelmed with links. One link that came up was this one, which had a partial but interesting list of schools. Here’s a sampling:

– Albright College (Reading, Pa.): Single-sex floors, apartments. Honors, first-year, substance-free and break housing

– Bucknell University (Lewisburg, Pa.): Substance-free, Judaic studies, Afro-American studies and environmental cooperative housing

– James Madison University (Harrisonburg, Va.): Theme housing for international, learning and substance-free, and second-year experience communities. Fraternity houses located off campus

– New York University (New York, N.Y.): Wellness, theme, substance-free, first-year experience, sophomore experience, living learning and co-ed housing

– Babson College (Babson Park, Mass.): Substance-free, special-interest and discounted housing

Is SFH Effective?

The more cynical among us might question the effectiveness of SFH. I have heard doubters say that some SFH residents live where there are no “substances” but then wander away from their SF dorms and head to parties here and there. Thus, they cite an element of hypocrisy. What do some media say about how well SFH works?

” … As it turns out, it does make a difference.,” says The New York Times. “No one claims that students who live in substance-free housing abstain from smoking, drinking alcohol or using drugs. But at least according to one survey, they don’t indulge as much as others. A 2001 study of more than 14,000 students nationwide found that, compared with other students, only three-fifths as many residents of substance-free housing reported binge drinking in the previous two weeks.

“There were other benefits, too. Students in substance-free housing, the study found, were less likely to experience alcohol-related problems, like getting behind in schoolwork, damaging property, getting into trouble with the police or riding with a drunken driver.

“There is, of course, a chicken-and-egg element to these findings. Students hoping for a college experience that bears some relationship to Animal House are not likely to opt for substance-free housing. …

” … At many campuses, residents of regular dorms, and even those assigned to substance-free housing they did not request, say they are glad the option exists.

“‘I think it’s good that colleges have a wellness choice,’ said Beatrice Capestany, a freshman who was assigned to the wellness corridor of Vassar’s sole remaining all-female dorm, although she did not request it. ‘My dorm is a really good place to come back home to if I’ve gone out. It smells a lot nicer than some other dorms, too.’ On that same wellness corridor, Victoria Ramsey and Kathryn Thomas, both freshmen, could not be more pleased with their choice.

“‘I don’t drink or smoke, and our corridor is clean and quiet,’ said Ms. Ramsey.

“Ms. Thomas added: ‘I wanted a quiet place for studying. Sometimes it’s a refuge, for people who come and stay till they know the party on their floor has died down.’”

Okay. That’s the positive side of the SFH coin. To remain fair and balanced, let’s take a look at the flip side, and a few points from Andrew Gottlieb’s Why substance free housing is a bad idea:

“I was surprised to learn that substance free residents are allowed to drink, and even more surprised to learn that many do drink. Even despite these surprises, my freshmen experience has led me to take serious issue with the idea of substance-free housing. It is simply unnecessary, unfair and divisive to designate entire floors as substance free.

” … If someone is firm in his or her decision not to partake in drinking, he or she could do so no matter where he or she lives. If he or she prefers not even to have alcohol in the room, there could be an option to choose a substance free roommate, without designating entire floors as substance free.

“The substance free designation is unfair because often the decision to live on a substance-free floor is not left in the hands of a student. I have met many students whose parents forced them to live on a sub-free floor, or worse, I have met students who did not ask to live on a sub-free floor but were put on one anyway simply because Residential Life needed to fill rooms. College is a place where at long last, young people achieve full independence. Creating a living option that may be preferable to many parents but not to their children is a disservice to students and an intrusion on the independence that college promises. …

” … The fact is that throughout almost every Wash. U. graduate’s life, they will have to work with and probably live with or near people who do not agree with their personal decisions about alcohol and other substances. An important chance to prepare for this aspect of life comes in college. The opportunity to live with, understand and respect the different choices of one’s classmates is invaluable. Washington University should recognize this important opportunity and change its housing policies, which currently hamper it.”

Gottlieb confirms that some SFH residents do, indeed, imbibe, which somewhat substantiates the hypocrisy argument, although one has to understand the intent of each college’s SFH rules and the motives of those who choose to live there (and perhaps the outlook of those who have been quartered there as a matter of random placement).

Some Schools Have Contracts

If you’re into highly quantified reasoning about SFH, then you may care to check out the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, funded by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Harvard Gazette references that and attests to the positive aspect of SFH when it notes:

Residents of college housing where alcohol and smoking were banned were less likely to be victims of actions by students who were drinking. Findings from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study show that substance-free college residence halls are making an impact in the effort to reduce the harms that heavy drinking produces among college students. This was the first study to take a national look at the relationship between substance-free dorms and the effects of alcohol on college campuses. …

Do SFH residents have to make a pledge that they will abide by the rules of their college’s SFH charter? Here’s an example of how Davidson College handles the SFH “contract” [see my bold emphasis]:

We offer substance-free housing for those students who wish to minimize their exposure in their living environment to alcohol and alcohol-related behavior, illicit drugs and smoking materials. Students living in these communities agree to not use alcohol or drugs on their floor community nor bring the effects of those substances back into the hall.

A link to the substance-free housing application will be included in an email from Jason Shaffer. Halls and/or floors to be designated as substance-free will be determined after applications are received.

All students choosing a substance free assignment will be required to complete a substance free housing contract. Failure to uphold the expectations will likely result in relocation to another assignment.

The College Confidential discussion forum members have debated the pros and cons of SFH. Here are a few comments from this informative thread:

“Our daughter was afraid to choose sub-free her freshman year because she wasn't sure what it really meant in terms of the types of kids that she'd be paired with. It was too general at her school. A "quiet dorm" would've been something she'd have probably picked, but "sub-free" seemed too general. Even though she's not a partier, she has friends who are. In the end, she regretted not choosing it, I think. But it really depends on the school and the kid.”

“At both my kids' big state universities, all the dorms were officially called 'substance free' but that didn't stop kids from doing what they wanted to do. My son knew some guys that got kicked out of the dorms in the first semester of freshman year one for marijuana use and the other for drinking …”

“My daughter did substance free housing her first two years at a small liberal arts college. The kids had to sign an agreement that they wouldn't drink or smoke inside or come back to the dorm under the influence (or bring anyone else back under the influence). There was no stigma, just a nice quiet dorm without wild parties. Like others said, no vomit in the public spaces or vandalism damage. Best part was no one ever pulled the fire alarm in the middle of the night!”

So, when you’re considering your college housing options, it may pay to check out how (or if) substance-free housing would fit into your plans. All the information you need to make a decision about that is available on your colleges’ housing web pages. Check it out!