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Does Drinking in College Affect Your Grades?

To some people, the following conclusion should be filed under “Duh.” But even they might appreciate the empirical rigor undertaken by Scott E. Carrell, Mark Hoekstra, and James E. West in a new working paper called “Does Drinking Impair College Performance? Evidence from a Regression Discontinuity Approach” (abstract here; PDF here). The authors point out that although the effect of alcohol on low-frequency but high-risk events – mortality and teen pregnancy, e.g. – is widely studied, “little is known about the effect of drinking on the majority of users.” The summary:

This paper examines the effect of alcohol consumption on student achievement. To do so, we exploit the discontinuity in drinking at age 21 at a college in which the minimum legal drinking age is strictly enforced. We find that drinking causes significant reductions in academic performance, particularly for the highest-performing students. This suggests that the negative consequences of alcohol consumption extend beyond the narrow segment of the population at risk of more severe, low-frequency, outcomes.

The choice of data set is interesting, and the explanation thereof is interesting in its own right:

We use administrative data on 3,884 students at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) [where one of the authors, West, teaches] between 2000 and 2006. This educational setting offers two distinct advantages for our analysis. First, in contrast to many college campuses, the explicit ban on underage drinking at the USAFA is strictly enforced; violations can lead to expulsion. As a result, in an anonymous survey of underage students in our sample, only 37 to 39 percent of students reported drinking any alcohol since arriving at the academy. By comparison, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that 83% of college students nationwide drink, and that 41% of college students reported consuming five or more drinks on a single occasion within the past two weeks (NIAAA, 2010). The second advantage of using USAFA data is a consistent measurement of academic achievement.