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UB research explores goals, drinking and transition out of college

A UB study finds that drinking during the senior year of college may interfere with students' personal goals as they transition from college into adulthood and the real world.

By BERT GAMBINI

Published March 26, 2015

“People have made a lot about coming into college, and it is an important transition, but an equally important transition is when you go out to do everything else.”
Jennifer Read, professor
Department of Psychology

Goal-oriented college students who don’t reduce their alcohol consumption during their senior year may be hurting their chances of graduating on time, according to a new study by a UB research team.

“Most people go to college to become something, a doctor or an engineer — or to become someone,” says study co-author Jennifer Read, professor of psychology. “Drinking may be interfering with who they’re becoming as adults. And that’s a big problem, one that has been grossly overlooked in the research so far.”

This work draws particular attention to the transition out of college and points to the possible benefits that could be realized from programs that prepare seniors to leave school similar to those they participated in earlier as incoming freshmen preparing to begin their education, says study co-author Sharon Radomski, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology.

Her paper, “The Role of Goals and Alcohol Behavior During the Transition out of College,” with Read and Julie Bowker, associate professor of psychology, will appear in a forthcoming issue of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

Seniors need to be aware of how their behaviors as students might influence personal goals they’ve set for themselves in emerging adulthood. Drinking stands out among the numerous factors that contribute to success or failure relative to those goals.

“These findings suggest that personal goals and alcohol do play a role in terms of meeting certain developmental milestones, like graduating from college,” says Radomski. “There are other factors, but we did find in this longitudinal study that assessed subjects throughout their senior year that among those who had high goals for achievement and who also decreased their drinking from the beginning of their senior year were more likely to have graduated at the end of that year than those who hadn’t decreased their drinking.”

Each life stage has certain developmental tasks. In adolescence, for instance, it’s developing autonomy and making friends. Since one set of tasks must be completed before moving to the next set, doing so is like cutting a key that unlocks entry into successive stages of life. Emotional distress and many problem behaviors are associated with failing to attain these tasks.

The transition from young adulthood to adulthood — a time of individual identify formation and professional development — occurs for students typically as they’re completing their senior year of college, which coincides with the ages (21 and 22 years old) when they’re generally most likely to engage in their heaviest drinking behavior, according Read.

Radomski says speaking with a group of people in their early 20s is to get a sense of the tumult. The options facing this group are numerous, and she says previous research suggests more options may be overwhelming, thus influencing decision-making.

Senior year may be a critical time to help students. “There is a lot going on for seniors getting ready to leave school: They’re applying for jobs or applying to graduate school, they’re making connections, getting their CV and references in order,” says Radomski.  “The senior year is not well recognized as a critical component, like a launching pad, for the transition into more adult roles. It seems this has been on the minds of seniors, but not the minds of researchers.”

Until now.

“This is one of the first studies to look at this transition and the role alcohol might be playing in these important developmental tasks,” Read says. “People have made a lot about coming into college, and it is an important transition, but an equally important transition is when you go out to do everything else. These are salient and important times.”