Overnight campus visits can sometimes worry parents. And that's because high school juniors and seniors sometimes get more than a campus tour on college visits, suggests a new national survey by the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University and SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions).
Roughly one in six surveyed teens (16 percent) who had been on an overnight college admissions visit reported drinking alcohol during the visit. Teens also reported engaging in sex or other intimate sexual behavior (17 percent), using drugs other than alcohol (5 percent) or driving while impaired (2 percent) during their overnight college visit.
The study, conducted for CARE and SADD by ORC International Inc. surveyed 1,070 U.S. teens from age 16 to 19, 270 of whom indicated they'd been on an overnight college admissions visit. It includes high school students currently making college visits and current college students reflecting on previous visits. Data was collected online between April 17 and 20, 2012.
"This information offers a cautionary tale to parents and college administrators," said Stephen Gray Wallace, director of CARE and an associate research professor at Susquehanna University. "One in six teens who have been on an overnight college admissions visit, some as young as 16, are making poor and potentially tragic choices on campus. Colleges and universities should examine their policies on campus visits to ensure the safety of young visitors and their hosts."
For some teens, the college visit was the first time they engaged in some of these behaviors. For example, 51 percent of teens who reported drinking during the overnight visit said they had done so for the first time. Fifty-two percent of respondents who reported engaging in some type of sexual activity during their visit indicated that they participated in behaviors in which they had not previously engaged.
The study is a follow-up to one conducted by SADD in 2003, which found higher instances of teens engaging in alcohol use (26 percent), sex (28 percent) or drug use (22 percent) during college visits. That study, however, included all types of overnight college visits (such as visiting a friend or sibling), not just those made during the college selection process.
"These results speak to parents about the importance of communicating about risks and setting expectations for their teens in advance of new and potentially challenging experiences," said Penny Wells, SADD's president and CEO. "The temptations are waiting for these young people as soon as they go off to the next phase of their lives at college. Parents should open a strong communication channel with their teens to guide them in the right direction."
What Families and Colleges Can Do
Risks aside, college visits remain an important staple of the higher education selection process. But parents, teens and colleges must share responsibility for keeping young people safe during thesampling process. Some practical measures might include:
• Accompany your teens on college visits and find accommodations at an off-campus hotel.
• Discuss with your teens the choices they may have to make and role play how they might best respond. Teens with parents who regularly engage them in open, honest dialogue about such important issues are much less likely to make poor choices.
• Explain your expectations. Parents who provide a strong level of guidance to their teens are more likely to have children who avoid destructive behaviors.
• Understand the risk behaviors you might encounter during a college visit.
• Explore possible dangerous "scenarios" with your parents and ask about their expectations for your behavior. Knowing what those expectations are will make it more likely you will to try to meet them.
• Decide ahead of time (i.e., "in the event of") what choices you feel comfortable with. This will make it easier to do the right thing when a moment of decision arrives.
• Assess the current risk behaviors of your students and visitors to campus.
• Respond with clear, firm policies that protect students, visitors and hosts.
• Communicate and enforce campus rules. Students,underage guests and their parents need to know that your college is serious about keeping young people safe.
• Invite prospective students for shorter visits.
• Train hosts and have them sign social contracts about acceptable behaviors on their part and the part of their visitors.