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Before school starts, freshmen quizzed on alcohol

  • Story Highlights
  • At least 1,000 colleges ask students to complete an online alcohol program
  • The programs were first aimed at those who violated alcohol laws
  • Now colleges are adapting the programs for incoming freshmen
  • Next Article in Living »
By April Daley
Special to CNN
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CNNU campus correspondent April Daley is a freshman at Northwestern University. CNNU is a feature that provides student perspectives on news and trends from colleges across the United States. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of CNN, its affiliates or the schools where the campus correspondents are based.

(CNN) -- Like most incoming college freshman, 18-year-old Aleksandr Kazachkov cannot wait for the freedom and new friends, as well as the chance to prove that he can responsibly live on his own. But before he can officially call Cornell University in Ithaca, New York his home, he must complete an hour-long online alcohol prevention course.

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Before school starts, many students take online alcohol classes, like this one from AlcoholEdu.

In July, Cornell sent Kazachkov a postcard giving him the Web site address and school-specific code for a mandatory prevention course.

The postcard, and later letters, said he needed to successfully complete the course before he moved into his dorm.

Kazachkov is just one of the many students on at least 1,000 college campuses who were asked to complete an online alcohol program this year.

Prevention programs like the Outside The Classroom's AlcoholEdu and 3rd Millennium Classroom's Alcohol Wise, aim to teach college students to use alcohol wisely rather than tell them not to drink at all.

Intervention programs, like San Diego (California) University Research Foundation's E-Chug, instead hope to change students' risky behavior.

Springing up around the year 2000, the online alcohol programs first had as their audiences underage teens who violated alcohol laws and members of select sororities and fraternities. But in the last three years, colleges have started to pay money to adapt them for incoming freshmen as well.

Although most of these freshmen are not legally allowed to drink, many do. According to a 2006 University Of California, Los Angeles survey, about 42 percent said they drink beer frequently or occasionally.

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To tackle this problem, AlcoholEdu and Alcohol Wise use a similar approach. Students take a survey asking questions about things like their gender and daily alcohol intake, which allows the program to give personalized advice and information. Then, they are asked questions to gauge what they know before the course.

During the course, students read passages that explain how alcohol affects their bodies and answer mastery questions. They then complete a 20 to 40 question final exam on everything they have learned.

Thirty days to 45 days after the course, students are expected to complete a follow-up to make sure they are on the right path. AlcoholEdu administers its own follow-up survey while Alcohol Wise uses a survey from its partners at E-Chug.

Although schools cannot access the results of particular students, they can see whether or not a student has completed the course and when. The complete course can take anywhere from one to three hours to complete depending on the company administering the course and the student's speed. However, students must complete AlcoholEdu's final exam in one sitting.

The 15- to 20-minute E-Chug evaluation also uses personalized questions and student confidentiality. However, because it is an intervention program, co-developer Doug Vansickle said, it focuses more on change than education. After the 16-question survey, students are presented with a personalized report on how they can change their habits.

To appeal to its young audience, the program uses a cheeseburger option. This option gives students the amount of cheeseburgers they would have to eat to equal the amount they are drinking.

At the end of the evaluation, they can complete a short "personal reflection."

CEO and founder of AlcoholEdu, Brandon Busteed said the approach is why it works.

"Students aren't used to being asked about their drinking habits," Busteed said. "Students are coming in saying they know everything, but the average pretest score is 40 and the average final exam score is in the high 70s."

And the statistics from the programs show that the courses do work. According to 3rd Millennium Classrooms, 76 percent of students who take Alcohol Wise agree that the course should help them avoid problems with alcohol.

Male college freshmen who participated in E-chug reduced their daily average drinks by 60 percent, according to a 2005 study by the University Of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Of students who completed AlcoholEdu, 72 percent said they now knew more about blood alcohol concentration, according to a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study.

Gabrielle Dunkley, 17, a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the university sent four letters telling her to complete the course. The letters said that if the course was not completed, she would not being allowed to live on campus.

Although she felt surprised at first, it had a huge impact on her, she said.

"The program changed my entire outlook on drinking," Dunkley said. "I knew that it could lead to irresponsible decisions but some of the statistics revealed that even those who are always cautious and safe could be placed in very unsafe predicaments."

Kazachkov said he isn't as convinced.

"After reading the e-mail for the first time, I gave a look of pity to the clock on the wall, sad that it would have to tick away wasted time," he said. "The program had some educational points, but mostly it was a sort of propaganda trying to convince kids that they need not drink to be cool. Drinking is fine to do it as long as you know your limits and don't go overboard."

DePauw University sophomore Andrew Smith, 18, remembers the course from the summer before his freshman year. He said that although he believes schools should push responsible drinking and wise decisions, the online program isn't the answer.

"I learned some stuff about alcohol that I didn't know," Smith said. "It did not affect how or what I drank. I believe drinking is about common sense and being responsible."

Instead, students need to be able to have real conversations with upperclassmen, he said.

The program isn't perfect, Busteed said, but he believes it is useful.

"This is not an easy issue," he said. "No one wants to take the course but the vast majority are going to learn something from it."

All of the programs are reassessed at least once a year in hopes of making them shorter with the most information possible.

Syracuse University junior Shari Dowding, 20, says she didn't take the course seriously her freshman year. She said she wasn't a heavy drinker and saw no need for it. But she does think at least one group of students is benefiting.

"The course was an eye-opener for those who abuse alcohol," Dowding said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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