WESTMINSTER, Md. (AP) — Many college students pack their bags and move away from home, possibly for the first time ever.
They settle into their dorm rooms. They make some friends. They get ready to go out and experience college nightlife, a preconceived notion of what that means likely already formed in their mind.
The first six weeks of college are critical. That's when habits related to future academic success can be formed. And that can be when drinking starts or is exacerbated, often due to student expectations and social pressures, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
There's a spike in alcohol usage for first-semester freshmen that generally tapers off throughout the rest of the student's college career, according to Aaron White, program director of NIAAA's College and Underage Drinking Prevention Research.
"Students show up with all these expectations about the role that alcohol is going to play in their lives in college," he said, "and they just get a little bit nuts with the freedom."
There's the fact that it's likely the students' first taste of freedom from their parents' watchful eyes. Or that the availability of alcohol, albeit still illegal for most freshmen, has increased.
But those aren't necessarily the main causes of the spike, according to White. The majority of students come to college already having some experience with alcohol, according to an NIAAA College Drinking Factsheet released in July.
During high school, college-bound students are less likely to drink than their peers who never attend college, according to an NIAAA update on college drinking research. However, the college-bound kids that drink more than their peers are the ones who tend to drink the most heavily when they get to school, White said.
"Colleges more or less inherit the problem than create it," he said. "But the college environment can nurture (it), certainly."
College students surpass their non-college peers in binge-drinking and drunk driving rates, according to the NIAAA.
Drinking alcohol isn't confined to certain pockets of the United States or to the schools that consistently rank among the Princeton Review's Top 20 Party Schools. About four out of five college students drink alcohol, according to NIAAA. And about half of those binge drink — which means consuming about four drinks in two hours for women and about five drinks in two hours for men.
About 19 percent of college students ages 18 to 24 met the criteria for alcohol abuse, yet only 5 percent sought treatment, according to the NIAAA's update on college drinking research printed in 2007.
And indulgence can sometimes lead to unintended consequences.
Each year, alcohol-related unintentional injuries cause the death of about 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24, according to NIAAA's data. In that age group, there's an average of 690,000 reported assaults, 97,000 sexual abuses and nearly 600,000 injuries each year — all of which were alcohol-related.
Often, students will decrease their alcohol consumption as freshman semester and the rest of college wears on, according to White. The drinking tends to mellow out as some realize they can't keep up this pattern of partying.
"You show up (to college) and you start doing what you think you're supposed to be doing," he said, "and then find out that there's no way to sustain that without flunking out."
Information from: Carroll County Times of Westminster, Md., http://www.carrollcounty.com/