Widgets Magazine

Castro, county officials discuss the methods behind AlcoholEdu’s renewal

Although the decision has already been made to renew funding for four more years of the online alcohol education program AlcoholEdu, University and county officials are still monitoring the ramifications of the survey data that in part bolstered the program’s renewal bid.

Stanford this year heralded AlcoholEdu as a success when it renewed the program’s funding until 2013. That “success” was part of an alcohol policy package Stanford used to win an exemption from Santa Clara County’s “social host” ordinance earlier this year. Under the ordinance, the county fines landowners for underage drinking that occurs on their property.

Data from a survey of students about AlcoholEdu released this summer indicate improved alcohol-related safety on campus, but the methodology and conclusions of the survey–specifically, the lack of a control group and debatable causality—preclude definitive interpretations about the program’s influence.

AlcoholEdu by the numbers–and methods

The survey was developed by Ralph Castro of the Substance Abuse Prevention and Policy Office and vetted by Mickey Trockel of the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department. It was given to freshmen for four years during the spring quarter after they participated in AlcoholEdu. Of the 1,685 students who responded, 71 percent rated AlcoholEdu as “somewhat to very effective” in educating them about college alcohol issues, and 77 percent said they learned something useful from the program.

In his recommendation that Stanford continue to fund AlcoholEdu, Castro cited a decision-making model developed by doctoral student in decision analysis Somik Raha that quantified the program’s effects and value to the University. Raha weighed the $18,000 annual cost of AlcoholEdu against the monetary values of staff response time, emergency room bills, missed classes, litigation and public relations costs, as well as core values more intrinsic to the University, like education and student welfare.

“What we wanted to know is, can we make decisions that honor our intrinsic values?” Raha said.

Castro noted that alcohol-related trips to the emergency room have dropped at Stanford to an average of about 60 per year from 119 in 2004-05. According to Raha’s statistical analyses, Stanford needs to drop to at most 59 annual “minor injuries”–anything less than permanent incapacitation or death–for AlcoholEdu to make financial sense.

“There’s definitely a correlation” between AlcoholEdu and a decrease in emergency room trips, “but there was no randomized control trial, so we can’t draw any conclusion about causality,” Castro said.

According to Castro, the lack of a control study is due to the survey’s original purpose, which was to obtain feedback and assess how students felt about AlcoholEdu and not to formally evaluate the program’s effectiveness. Castro noted the possible effects of the New Student Orientation alcohol policy, increased focus on hard-alcohol consumption in alcohol education programs on campus and recently implemented changes in residential staff training regarding alcohol. He added that although AlcoholEdu is only one small piece of a larger program, it’s the most comprehensive because every single student participates in it.

Randomized control trials sponsored by AlcoholEdu have taken place on a national scale and have shown quantifiable decreases in the negative consequences of drinking in groups that have gone through the program. AlcoholEdu is used by more than 500 college and university campuses nationwide, according to its website. The Stanford Alcohol Advisory Board spent three quarters studying national studies in peer-reviewed journals, Stanford data and anecdotal data before making a formal recommendation to continue the program.

“We reviewed other programs, and they paled in comparison to AlcoholEdu’s richness and depth,” Castro said. “It’s not just a PowerPoint, and its messages complement [Stanford’s].”

He added that although he prefers person-to-person education techniques, online education is a more effective way to reach students on a large scale.

The county perspective

Another financial motivation for the University to invest in alcohol education is its exemption from Santa Clara County’s “social host” drinking ordinance, which allows the county to impose a fine of up to $700 on anyone responsible for hosting underage drinking gatherings. Stanford’s continued exemption from the ordinance is contingent on the University continuing to promote alcohol education and minimize alcohol-related incidents.

Santa Clara County District 5 Supervisor Liz Kniss said the terms of Stanford’s exemption from the drinking ordinance were negotiated by the University counsel office, the Stanford University Police Department, Castro at Vaden and the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department.

Kniss cited two major stipulations developed by the county Department of Alcohol & Drug Services (DADS) for maintaining the exemption. First, all University alcohol policies and programs are designed to meet the purpose of the ordinance and then reviewed and approved annually by DADS. Second, Stanford bears all costs for annual review and alcohol-related emergencies, as well as responsibility for the outcomes.

“They made a very strong argument that they would monitor this [and] have education in place, and that it would be reported in a regular and sustainable way,” Kniss said. She added that the county considers the exemption a “big deal [and] does not take this kind of ordinance lightly.”

For the county, the success of alcohol education at Stanford is defined in “big picture” terms: whether or not the University is conforming to the best practices established at similar institutions, how closely University officials adhere to their own policies, the degree of genuine support for the programs within the administration and student responses to the University’s efforts.

Although the county has not yet received all the data on AlcoholEdu, it has a summary indicating that information about alcohol might lead to an increase in responsible behavior, which seems to be the case with self-reporting as well, Kniss said.

“It seems to me that the result of this exemption is that Stanford has taken underage drinking very seriously and has really focused on education,” Kniss added.