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Omeka - Digital History at Ursinus

Big Picture: The Historical Narrative


 Ursinus College students are just a small sample of the thousands of students consuming alcohol nationwide during the period of our project. While drinking on American college campuses has likely occurred since the establishment of colleges in this country, the phenomenon has not always been readily discussed. Social taboos surrounding alcohol, as well as rigid administrations and parents, have prevented the issue from entering public discussion, even though college students have always been drinking in the background. With this project, we hope not only to narrate the history of alcohol consumption and policy over a 20-year period, but also to put Ursinus in perspective with national discussion surrounding this issue.

According to an article in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, the 1970s marked the first time college students “were no longer simply readily accessible research participants but rather had become the focus of research.”[1] This article, which chronicles the history of studies on college alcohol consumption, states thatit was not until this time that reports on alcohol consumption began including college students as a specific area of study. In 1970, two years after our first two articles on alcohol appeared in the Weekly, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) was created, providing funding for alcohol research on a level not seen before.

Opening alcohol consumption as a field of study allowed researchers to disentangle it from moral and religious standings. Additionally, a 1973 study proved that binge drinking was a result of “learning to expect positive effects from alcohol,” rather than the physical effects of alcohol itself, giving a new perspective to peer pressure and other societal influences.[2] Later in the article, the authors remind us that alcohol, though always seen as a public health concern, was actually important to assess scientifically. In this era, for the first time, alcohol abuse was seen as something that could be helped through “intervention and treatment” rather than “willpower and religion.” [3] All of these advances in the way we have approached alcohol consumption have been critical to understanding it today, and having the history and context of the 1970s and ‘80s gives us a foundation for the present.


 The issue of drunk driving was not just a large issue of the Ursinus community, but the entire country as well. Coming into the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan had a firm stance on changing the drinking and driving culture that was rampant in the country during the time. He wanted to create a national movement, but failed to do so for most of his first term. It wasn’t until July 17th, 1984, that President Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act[4]. The act was made to punish every state that allowed persons below 21 years -ideally teenagers and young college students- to purchase and publicly possess alcoholic beverages by reducing its annual federal highway apportionment by ten percent. It was also an effort to reduce young people from driving across state lines to states where the drinking age was lower than their own.

But as we’ve seen from student opinions like the one found in the 1984 Grizzly, no amount of restrictions are  going to stop determined students from consuming alcohol. But drunk driving wasn’t the only significant problem related to the drinking habits of college students. A combined study done by the Department of Applied Health Science and the Department of Sociology at Indiana University found that there was a significant increase in problems related to drinking because of "hangovers," "drinking while driving," and "missing class because of hangovers" in their study of college students from all ages, races, and backgrounds, conducted in 1983[5]. This may have had a direct impact of the college’s crackdown on underage drinking, and the collaboration with the Liquor Control Board in order to reduce the college’s alcohol related issues. However, the question remains as to whether the college’s acknowledgement of underage drinking and its affects even remotely had an effect on whether students cared enough to follow the newly constructed rules.





[1] J.R. Kilmer,  J.M. Cronce, M.E. Larimer, “College Student Drinking Research From the 1940s to the Future: Where We Have Been and Where We Are Going,” In Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs Supplement, 2014; 75, 26-35, accessed December 4, 2017.

[2] G.A. Marlatt ,  B. Demming, J.B. Reid, “Loss of control drinking in alcoholics: An experimental analogue,” In Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1973; 81: 223–241, accessed December 4, 2017.

[3]K.R. Warren, B.G. Hewitt, “NIAAA: Advancing alcohol research for 40 years” In Alcohol Research & Health, 2010; 33: 87–96, accessed December 4, 2017.

[4] Ronald Reagan, "Remarks on Signing a National Minimum Drinking Age Bill," July 17, 1984. In The American Presidency Project, ed. Gerhard Peters, John T. Woolley, Online 1999-2018,, accessed December 4, 2017.

[5] Ruth C.Engs, David J. Hanson, “The Drinking Patterns and Problems of College Students,” In Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education Education, 1985; 31, 65-84.

Big Picture: The Historical Narrative