Why the Impact of Alcohol Use on Academics May Also Hinder Job Prospects for Graduates


A recent article in the Journal of Applied Psychology provides new insights specifically related to the implications of student alcohol use on future employment. The study found that alcohol consumption, in general, did not affect the likelihood of post-graduation employment. However, seniors who reported heavy episodic drinking experienced a 10% reduction in the probability of employment following graduation.

While the impact of high-risk drinking on outcomes beyond college is an area that has not been extensively examined, these findings are not altogether surprising, considering what we have learned from two decades of research identifying alcohol’s negative impact on academics. This research can be summarized based on three key areas of impact: class attendance, time spent studying, and grade point average.

Research Finding #1: High-risk drinking negatively impacts class attendance.

In a 2011 study, Todd Wyatt and Bill DeJong identified that certain activities could reliably predict academic success. Using data collected from 13,900 first year students at 167 universities, the researchers found that “after time spent studying, the amount of time a student spent drinking was the strongest predictor of that student’s GPA – even more so than time spent in the classroom.” A previous study also by Wyatt (2009) found that the number of drinks consumed had a positive correlation with the number of classes missed. These findings support earlier work by Wechsler and colleagues (1998) that frequent binge drinkers are more likely to miss a class and fall behind in their schoolwork.

Research Finding #2: High risk drinking negatively impacts time spent studying.

Notable studies in this area include that of Wolaver (2002) and Porter & Pryor (2007). Wolover identified that alcohol consumption has a negative predictive effect on study hours under all definitions of drinking, e.g., binge, frequent binge, drunkenness, and frequent drunkenness (Wolaver, 2002). In addition, more frequent use of alcohol was found to produce larger negative effects on study hours, with frequent drunkenness having the largest negative effect (Wolaver, 2002). Supporting these findings, Porter and Pryor (2007) identified a negative relationship between heavy episodic alcohol use and the time students spend on academics.

Research Finding #3: There is an inverse relationship between high risk drinking and grade point average.

Work by recognized researchers in the field of alcohol prevention, such as Porter & Pryor, Pascarella, and Engs, have have greatly contributed to our understanding of alcohol’s impact on grade point average (GPA). In 1993, a study by Cheryl Presley was one of the first to identify that the heaviest drinkers obtain the lowest grades. Later research continued to illustrate a significant relationship between GPA and the percent of students who drink or are heavy drinkers (Engs et al., 1996; Wolaver, 2002). In particular, those students reporting 4.0 GPAs were found to consume a third fewer drinks compared to those with GPAs under 2.0 (Engs et al., 1996). Looking at differences between categories of drinkers, Rau & Durand (2000) found a significant decline in GPA when comparing abstainers to heavier drinkers. Also, the frequency of high-risk drinking plays a factor, with the probability of getting a high GPA significantly decreasing as the frequency of heavy episodic drinking increases (Porter & Pryor, 2007; Pascarella et al., 2007).

These findings provide important context for the recent study on employment opportunities. It only makes sense that hindered academic performance among high-risk drinkers during college would ultimately translate to the outcomes noted by Bamburger and colleagues. Even self-motivation to achieve academically, especially among males, is negatively impacted by high-risk drinking (Ansari et al., 2013), providing further insight into why some graduates may be delayed in entering the workforce.

Importantly, all of these observations and discoveries serve to remind us that prevention efforts must extend beyond student affairs to academic life, particularly through the engagement of faculty and academic deans. The premise of higher education is to provide formal learning on the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in a chosen area of study and, ultimately, a career. We owe it to our students to ensure that we also provide an understanding of how alcohol impacts their goals beyond graduation and that all the formal knowledge they have amassed during their time on campus is not the only aspect of college that can influence their future success.

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