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Healthy Normative Environment

Key Issue:

Social Norms Marketing

Many people accept drinking and other drug use as a normal part of the college experience. When viewed simply as a rite of passage, alcohol and other drug use becomes an acceptable part of the campus environment and high-risk behavior increases. Reducing this level of acceptance and creating a new definition of ìnormalî is an instrumental part of any successful prevention effort.

Social norms are people's beliefs about the attitudes and behaviors that are normal, acceptable, or even expected in a particular social context. In many situations, people's perception of these norms will greatly influence their behavior. The normative environment encompasses all of the factors that help to establish these norms among students.

Campuses should focus on creating a social, academic, and residential environment that supports healthy student behaviors and healthy norms. Creating this environment requires consistently communicating expectations about alcohol and other drug related behavior, while supporting and encouraging healthy choices among students. Articulating expectations and promoting healthy behavior begins with the admissions process and continues through graduation.

Admissions Process
Because studentsí exposure to a college or university begins during the admissions process, this stage is critical in establishing the normative environment of the student body. Throughout the process, promotional materials, admissions officers, campus tour guides, and alumni should clearly articulate expectations regarding alcohol and other drug use, and provide social norms information to dispel student myths about peer drinking.

Promotional materials should contain images and information that promote a healthy normative environment that doesnít support alcohol or other drug use. Events for feeder schools, alumni, and prospective students can also incorporate healthy social norms messaging. Campus tours that emphasize the positive academic and social aspects of the school will encourage a positive normative environment. The admissions office can focus their efforts on attracting responsible students by promoting the academic mission of the school throughout the admissions process. Students who host accepted applicants considering matriculation should be asked to reinforce and perpetuate positive and healthy attitudes and behaviors.

Student Life
Once students have matriculated, structured changes that impact student life can reduce the possibility or implicit acceptance of alcohol and other drug use. Modifying the academic schedule to include classes throughout the day on Thursday and Friday improves the academic focus and decreases weeknight partying. Faculty should be encouraged to schedule tests and papers for Fridays and Mondays to reinforce the message that academic commitments come before social life and partying. Classes that meet more frequently also require students to maintain a rigorous academic schedule and decrease time available to engage in high-risk behavior.

Faculty greatly influence studentsí college experience. Increasing faculty and student contact by decreasing class size, creating more seminars, increasing office hours, and designing opportunities for students to work with faculty on research or other projects can give more meaning to studentsí academic experience. With increased faculty contact, students are more engaged in their classes and the subject material. This reinforces the academic mission of the college, and takes focus away from partying.

Housing options greatly effect studentsí perception of behavior on campus. Offering substance-free residence options creates communities where alcohol and other drug use is not a part of studentsí day-to-day experiences. Such residence options may also attract prospective students who want to live and study in an atmosphere that reinforces and supports healthy behavior. Many campuses have discovered that as they introduce such opportunities, the demand for more substance-free housing increases as this option becomes more attractive and popular.

Social Norms Marketing
In addition to altering the daily structure of studentsí lives, campus prevention efforts should work to correct student misperceptions of norms through social norms marketing. Researchers have established that college students tend to grossly overestimate the extent to which their peers engage in high-risk drinking. As students attempt to fit in with peers, this misperception is thought to influence studentsí decisions about their drinking, causing them to drink more heavily. A social norms marketing campaign aims to correct these misperceptions through a campus-based media campaign that informs students of the true levels of student alcohol consumption. Research has shown that such campaigns can dramatically reduce rates of high-risk drinking on campus as studentsí perceptions of the norm are realigned with actual student behaviors.

For more information, visit the section on Social Norms Marketing.

Examples of specific strategies

  • Change college admissions procedures
  • Modify the academic schedule
  • Increase academic standards
  • Offer substance-free residence options
  • Increase faculty-student contact
  • Create a social norms marketing program to correct student misperceptions of campus drinking norms

Social Norms and Social Marketing


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