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Hard-liquor ban is good start, but public schools also need return to single-sex dorms

Dartmouth College.
Dartmouth College.

Parents face many worries when sending a child to college. Unfortunately, those fears are compounded at too many institutions these days by administrators who signal they neither share those worries nor take any responsibility for enforcing proper behavior.

We commend Dartmouth College for announcing last week that, beginning in the spring, hard liquor will be banned from campus. The move was prompted in part by a series of problems involving binge drinking, a practice that has led to deaths at some universities in the past. The school also is concerned about rape, which has been an alcohol-related problem at several universities lately. At Dartmouth, all undergraduates will be required to attend classes on sexual violence prevention for all four years.

But even if such problems hadn’t arisen, it makes little sense either to allow or tacitly approve of drinking on a campus at which only the oldest undergraduates, seniors in most cases, have reached legal drinking age.

Unfortunately, few colleges and universities seem ready to follow Dartmouth’s lead, and Dartmouth’s ban concerns only hard liquor. Beer apparently still will be tolerated.

Critics say the ban will not solve binge drinking. Instead, they say, it will move the problem off campus or underground.

We’re not so quick to discount the influence of official action. No doubt many students who otherwise would not drink feel pressured to do so by an implied official sanction.

But we agree that a ban alone is not the answer. If Dartmouth and other schools want to put a crimp in binge drinking, they need to combine a ban on alcohol with a return to single-sex dormitories.

A study by Brigham Young University in 2009, published in The Journal of American College Health, found a connection between coed dorms and binge drinking. The study surveyed 510 students at five universities and found that those in coed dorms were 2½ times more likely to engage in binge drinking than those in same-sex dorms.

Casual drinking also follows the same trend. In coed dorms, 56 percent said they drank some alcohol weekly, compared with 27 percent in same-gender dorms.

The study also found the results weren’t indicative of self-selection. In other words, the partyers weren’t asking to live in coed dorms. In most cases, universities simply assigned students where to live.

The study’s results were not unique. As John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America, wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, several studies point to binge drinking rates being twice as high in coed dorms as in single-sex housing. Studies also link coed dorms and the “hookup” culture on modern campuses with increased rates of depression and poor academic performance.

Garvey wrote his op-ed just after announcing The Catholic University of America was discontinuing coed dorms. He said too many universities have abdicated their responsibility to help young people become responsible adults.

“But I believe that intellect and virtue are connected,” he wrote. “They influence one another.”

Drinking bans and segregated dorms tend to be more prevalent at religious universities. It’s time for public schools to follow the same path.

Dartmouth has shown it understands that its administration has to begin acting as an adult in a setting where 18-year-old students arrive with little knowledge or experience about adulthood. Rules do matter, and young students need leadership and proper training.

But a hard liquor ban is just one step toward giving parents greater peace of mind.