2015 Topical Reporting, Medium Newsroom finalist

Alcohol’s Hold on Campus


About the Project

Higher education has come under unprecedented scrutiny in recent years, for low graduation rates, for rising student debt, and for the treatment of victims of sexual assault. Yet both the public and colleges remain notably quiet on an issue plaguing higher education: The role of alcohol and excessive drinking on campus.

Alcohol is so woven into the DNA of the collegiate experience that students will fight for access to it as a basic right. And many schools are ill-equipped to stop abuses. Despite decades of attention, millions of dollars invested in experiments, and innumerable task forces, student drinking remains as much as a problem as ever, with thousands injured every year and hundreds dead.

As the most prominent trade publication covering the field, The Chronicle of Higher Education dove deeply into the crisis last November, embarking on a newsroom-wide effort to explain what we called “Alcohol’s Hold on Campus.” It wasn’t just about the what—we wanted to explore the why, how, who and where of the problem.

Some of our best reporters with decades of experience and connections in higher education traveled the country to interview students, administrators, faculty and community members to get to the heart of the issue and why nothing has worked. They asked tough questions and unearthed historical documents that told a much more complicated story than what’s on the surface.

As compelling as what we found was, we knew we’d have a more powerful impact if we used the strongest story-telling tools we had available. So we brought in some of our strongest digital thinkers and editors to develop a week-long roll-out of stories, commentary, a video, maps and a historic timeline. We shared everything on social media channels all week and watched a robust discussion unfold, which culminated in online chat we hosted that Friday.

The package resonated with our readers and drew the attention of mainstream news outlets like The Washington Post and the PBS Evening Newshour. A PDF compilation of the articles has spread so much on campuses that the first few Google results for its title are actually colleges and universities sharing it. As the general counsel of a major public university wrote to us, “Your multi-part series on alcohol consumption on campus has been extraordinarily useful to those of us in higher education who are concerned about the issue… Your coverage has catalyzed important discussions, both on campus and among campuses.”

Through these creative means, the series sends a powerful message: the deaths, injuries and academic failures caused by alcohol won’t stop unless we acknowledge the roots of the problem.