At Virginia Tech, where tailgating and raucous apartment complex parties are time-honored rituals, university officials are turning to Mom and Dad to curb underage drinking.
This semester, the school began notifying parents when their under-21 students are found guilty of even minor alcohol violations, such as getting caught with a beer in a dorm room.
Although it’s common for colleges to alert parents of major alcohol offenses — or when a student faces suspension — Virginia Tech is part of growing number sending letters home on minor ones.
The debate about how much to involve parents is a balancing act for colleges and universities. Officials want to keep young adults accountable and are well aware that drinking is part of the college experience. They also recognize potential allies in a generation of hands-on parents who can help if things go too far.
“Parents can be helpful in setting boundaries students might need,” said Steven Clarke, Virginia Tech’s College Alcohol Abuse Prevention Center director.
The new policy is part of a strategy that includes alcohol-education classes and a “party positive” program that encourages responsible drinking.
The student reaction to the policy change, not surprisingly, has been less than enthusiastic.
Studies show that students who say their parents would disapprove of them drinking are less likely to drink heavily once they start college, said Toben Nelson, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health who has studied campus drinking.
At Virginia Tech, the school has used a “three strikes” system for years: Students get one strike for a minor alcohol violation and two for a major one, such as getting a DUI. Three strikes and a student is suspended.
After a spate of alcohol-related deaths on college campuses, Congress in the late 1990s changed student privacy laws to lower barriers to parental notification in cases involving students who are less than 21-years-old.
Virginia Tech started notifying parents of under-21 students after major alcohol offenses or when a student had accumulated two strikes with two minor ones.
But some parents complained that because they weren’t notified of minor offenses, they were in the dark until a student faced suspension, said Edward Spencer, vice president for student affairs. Today, parents tend to be tethered by cell phones to children who, studies show, often idolize their parents — so it makes sense to go a step further in parental involvement, he said.
Research has found more than 40 percent of college students reported at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependence. One recent study estimated that more than 500,000 full-time students at four-year colleges suffer injuries each year related to drinking and about 1,700 die in such accidents.
“When it comes to safety, there really is a fine line,” sophomore Max DiSesa said. “I completely understand Virginia Tech, and they want to keep people safe. But I think this might be overall detrimental to the growth of students.”
Some universities have already found success. The State University of New York at Albany has seen a decline in repeat offenders since it began notifying parents of under-21 students of minor alcohol violations four years ago, said Laurie Garafola, director of residential life.