PROVO — Three Brigham Young University students held an off-campus "kegnog" party Sunday night at their townhouse in east Provo, but this wasn't the average college kegger.
At a time when 81 percent of college presidents consider alcohol a problem for their students and the same number ban it from at least some portion of campus dorms, this Christmas bash created no worries for BYU President Cecil Samuelson: No kegs, no beer, no alcohol of any kind. Bing Crosby, crooning Christmas carols from the CD player, was drowned out by the din of animated conversation soaked in nothing more than great eggnog — and no, it wasn't spiked.
So, just how peculiar does that make BYU and its students when 75 percent to 85 percent of their peers around the country drink alcohol and consider it part of the college experience?
Ranked the nation's No. 1 "stone-cold sober" school for nine straight years in the annual Princeton Review book "Best 361 Colleges," BYU clearly stands out, but it is not alone. There are more than 700 religious colleges in the United States, and some of them, like Bob Jones University, which isn't included in the book at all, dismiss students for possession or use of alcohol. Others, like Calvin College, ranked 10th on the sober list, ban it from campus.
"I think there are many schools across the country that could be considered stone-cold sober schools," Calvin College spokesman Phil de Haan said. "BYU is No. 1 out of the 361 in the book, but would they be No. 1 among all the schools not in the book? Maybe not."
Large state schools won't knock BYU out of the top spot, but many of them are adopting policies aimed at increasing sobriety. Oklahoma University banned alcohol from campus, including all dorms, last year after a 19-year-old student died of alcohol poisoning.
In the spring, the University of California at Berkeley banned alcohol at campus fraternity and sorority events because of the "alarming increase in problems with alcohol abuse, hazing, fights and badly managed parties," the dean of students said.
This fall, Stanford University required every freshman to take a three-hour alcohol education course online. And last month, Harvard prohibited alcohol at the tailgate party before the Harvard-Yale game, an occasion previously considered "the ultimate in Ivy League boozefests," according to the Boston Herald.
A majority of schools are like the University of Michigan, which according to its Web site, designates 30 percent of its residence halls as substance free, "where all residents and their guests agree to keep the room free from all substances, including alcohol, cigarettes and illicit drugs."
One reason for all of these initiatives is a law that requires schools receiving federal funds to conduct a campus survey of alcohol and drug use every other year, said Ed Pimentel, a researcher at the Core Institute at Southern Illinois University. The Core Institute provides survey support to schools around the country and then compiles data from those surveys.
The results reveal a lot of problems.
"About 30 percent of students are going to drink heavily and frequently," Pimentel said. "There are a lot of people who say college drinking is a non-issue, people will mature out of it, but indeed many don't, and many suffer for it, and their performance isn't what it could be."
A 2005 study by Boston University found that 1,700 college students die each year of alcohol-related causes while 560,000 more are hurt or injured because of their drinking.
Alcohol-related sex is also a major concern. The Boston study showed that more than 97,000 students are victims of sexual assaults related to drinking. An earlier landmark study by Harvard estimated that nearly 400,000 full-time students may have unprotected sex as a result of drinking.
The statistics didn't surprise Sunday's Provo partygoers.
"I've been to parties at Arizona State University where 14 kegs were lined up around the on-campus housing quad," said Ali Smylie, who isn't a BYU student but a Salt Lake native dating Ben Wade, one of the kegnog organizers.
One time, Smylie kept her eye on a girlfriend who was drinking. When she and a man suddenly disappeared, Smylie gathered a group to track them down. They found the woman screaming for help as the man appeared to be preparing to sexually assault her. A fight ensued, and Smylie said a gun was pulled.
The closest things to debauchery at Sunday's kegnogger were the football game on television (some LDS don't watch TV on Sunday), the straddle-jump hug one young woman gave a man and the fish feeding. At 9 p.m., two women, using their bare hands, dropped three goldfish one at a time into a huge fish tank. Dozens of partygoers cheered as a lionfish, a soap fish and a squirrel fish successfully hunted the prey. The scene was repeated again at 10 p.m., and the party disbanded.
No statistics are available on how many BYU students drink alcohol, but some do run afoul of the university's Honor Code, which prohibits alcohol, drugs and tobacco.
Jorge Zavala, a Provo native and former Utah Valley State College student now studying at the University of Utah, said he knows a few BYU students who binge drink and stay in tight circles to keep their drinking a secret.
Since 2000, between 1.5 percent and 3.5 percent of the student body in a given year was referred to the Honor Code Office, according to BYU's accreditation study. The university does not provide a breakdown of alleged offenses, BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said.
Zavala, who is LDS, said in his experience most BYU students do follow the Honor Code.
"BYU students are definitely a lot more creative in their parties," Zavala said. "There's a lot of BYU influence on UVSC parties, too. In Salt Lake I see a lot of alcohol abuse among college-age kids. That's what they do for fun."
Enough fun was had Sunday night that the BYU students — Wade, Craig Jaynes and Kurt Reber — who organized it said they'll hold a third kegnog next year.