Undisclosed costs of college?

Report of the faculty-student task force on undergraduate arrest rates

submitted to The University of Iowa Faculty Senate, December 2003



            The observation that college can be costly typically refers to the ever-rising and often considerable financial burdens of tuition and fees, along with costs of room and board, textbooks, and so on.  It generally does not refer to the costs of youthful follies—in particular, the consequences of illegal behavior that may be dumb, irresponsible, obnoxious and sometimes exceedingly harmful but in most cases does not signal the first step in a life of crime.

            Beyond the usual parking and traffic violations, the most common unsanctioned acts in our community involve regulated substances.  Use, misuse or abuse of tobacco, alcohol, or outright illegal drugs such as marijuana are all potential topics for concern in a college community, but alcohol is far and away the most salient, debated and contentious of these.  Strategies and programs for reduction of underage and excessive drinking among college students have gotten the lion’s share of attention in these discussions; locally, Iowa’s “Stepping Up” program and the controversy over raising the bar entry age to 21, revised at the eleventh hour to 19, have been recent focal points.

            This report is an attempt to direct some attention to the fairly narrow question of what the most prevalent alcohol- and drug- related charges might mean for students themselves, and to explore how The University of Iowa might address, in a manner both principled and pragmatic, actual problems these encounters with law enforcement and the courts may pose for students and their families.

            The report summarizes the work of a committee of three faculty members and three undergraduate students, conducted mainly last winter and spring.  Our discussion draws on informational sessions with representatives from UI Student Services, residence hall administration, campus police and Iowa City police; a welter of campus, city, county and national reports and statistics; and local and national press accounts.  It also is informed by other information-gathering by individual committee members, including a survey administered in a large undergraduate class last spring and anecdotal accounts from students and family members.

            A word may be in order about what this report is not.  We do not purport to make any contributions to the quest for ways to reduce student drinking.  In addition, although our statistical sources do not always make these distinctions, we explicitly did not wish to focus on what might be considered more “serious” drug and alcohol offenses such as impaired driving, use of “hard” drugs or drug dealing; rather, our emphasis is on commonplace lower-end offenses related to possession and use—i.e., citations for possession of alcohol under the legal age (so-called PAULA), arrests for public intoxication, and arrests for possession or use of small amounts of marijuana.


The statistical quagmire

            Federal law requires all two- and four-year colleges and universities receiving federal aid to collect campus crime data and make public three years’ worth of statistics.  The original impetus for the federal reporting mandate was a campus rape and concerns about students’ physical safety, and while reliability of statistics is subject to criticism, the reports do provide indicators and presumably some basis for comparative judgment.

            In 1998, Congress required the U.S. Department of Education to compile the data annually, which it did for the first time in the fall of 2000 (with data from 1997, 1998 and 1999).  The Chronicle of Higher Education, which had been doing its own summaries since 1993, now analyzes this report early each year (with statistics from two years prior, i.e., the 2003 analysis deals with 2001 statistics), and this regular Chronicle feature is always followed by a flurry of localized follow-ups in local media.

            National studies suggest that about five percent of four-year college students become involved with police or campus security as a result of their drinking (NIH, 2002).  In the annual campus crime reports, although violent crime statistics are the more sensational, alcohol and drug offenses always dominate, numerically and in press accounts.  However, the statistics are extremely complicated to interpret for a variety of reasons, including:

            • First, the reports accessible through the U.S. Department of Education search engine (which does not always work), and for individual schools on campus police/public safety department websites, present raw figures rather than rates of occurrence.  It is no surprise, for instance, that highest reported incidences of offenses in just about any category come from campuses with the highest enrollments.  Although the web site does permit searches by size and other categories, further calculations are required for legitimate comparisons.  The Chronicle generally offers further breakdowns.  In any case, to be more useful, these statistics need to be translated from absolute to proportional figures.

            • Second, the ways campuses report statistics and the scope of statistics they report vary.  This is often related to geographical configuration of the campus and community.  Crimes are reported for four types of areas: on-campus property, non-campus property primarily used by students (such as Greek houses), public property (including sidewalks and streets adjacent to campus), and on-campus residence halls.  Results differ regarding the weight of statistics from off-campus locations as well as on public property surrounding campuses and, in some cases, several miles away.  Campuses with larger proportions of students living in dormitories are likely to have more illegal acts committed on campus.  For campuses whose geographies are intertwined with the community, such as Iowa or Wisconsin-Madison, a large proportion of arrests may be of non-students.

            • Third, reports on crimes are precisely that—reports, reflecting the approach of police, prosecutors and courts as well as the nature, scope and effectiveness of enforcement as much as actual levels of crime.  Indeed, sociologists tell us that arrest figures may have to do with enforcement even more than incidence; and a prosecutor in Massachusetts goes so far as to say that arrest rates are useless as an indicator of campus lawbreaking.

            • Fourth, an important aspect of reported campus statistics when it comes to alcohol and drug offenses is the distinction made between “arrests” and “referrals.”  This reflects the fact that many campuses handle alcohol and drug violations largely through internal judicial systems.  The University of Iowa relies largely on the regular court system, particularly for drug offenses.  It has a much higher absolute and proportional level of “arrests,” therefore, than a school such as The University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus or The University of Vermont, which rely much more on internal systems.

            That said, what might the figures suggest about drug and alcohol violations and responses on and around college campuses?  Overall, the arrest figures have been rising, but not dramatically so.  The Chronicle’s latest analysis, published in May 2003, of data from 4,711 schools reporting for the year 2001, showed that nationally, campus alcohol arrests were up 4.7 percent, to 27,386, and drug arrests were up 5.5 percent, to 12,048, over 2000.

            But here’s cause for confusion:  The U.S. Department of Education itself offers different figures in different places.  One web page reports a total of more than 49,247 liquor law arrests for 2001, including 32,659 at public four-year institutions; and 30,969 drug law violations, including 13, 801 at public four-year institutions.  Meanwhile, the DOE puts total referrals for liquor violations at 142,983, and referrals for drug violations at 29,998, with respective tallies for four-year public institutions being 69,705 and 13,872.

            We can discern, however, that a certain set of large public institutions typically top the arrest tallies, although they may swap positions year to year.  Statistics from individual schools sometimes shift markedly from one year to the next, usually an increase, which authorities attribute not to an increased problem but to stricter enforcement.

            According to the Chronicle figures, the five four-year campuses with the most arrests for alcohol in 2001 were:  Michigan State University (898), University of Wisconsin-Madison (882), Western Michigan University (577), Louisiana State University (476), and Indiana University-Bloomington (449).  The top five for drug arrests were:  Penn State University (173), Indiana (170), Wisconsin (166), University of Washington (149), and Arizona State University (139). (The correlation between these rankings and the infamous Princeton Review list of top 10 “party schools” is imperfect:  This year, Colorado, Wisconsin-Madison and Indiana-Bloomington were top three; in 2002, Indiana-Bloomington was number one partier).

            In 2000, according to the Chronicle, The University of Iowa came out fifth in on-campus drug arrests among large four-year public institutions, with 127, after Penn State, Michigan State, Indiana and UC-Berkeley.  But the addition of off-campus figures for Iowa would bring the total to 205, which led at least one local newspaper to move Iowa to number one.  In short, we found many differences and discrepancies in the figures themselves and in their uses, combinations and interpretations.  In addition, although campus reports incorporate some statistics provided by local police departments, where campus accounting ends and local city accounting begins becomes an extremely fuzzy line—conceptually if not geographically.

            Although our committee had neither time nor resources to examine figures exhaustively, we did come up with proportional comparisons, accounting for enrollments, of 2001 and 2000 statistics reported to the DEO.  Looking at Iowa, the two other regents schools and a number of other big ten universities of comparable size, we found the rate of alcohol arrests reported for Iowa not out of line and in fact notably lower than rates at Indiana and Madison; whereas drug arrest rates for Iowa, along with Indiana and Penn State, were comparatively high.  However, again, exactly what the numbers represent is unclear and the completeness of these figures is open to question.

            Iowa City Police Department statistics on citywide arrests as well as statistics from counties with regents institutions provide useful context, although this information likewise is fraught with interpretive complications.  Over the last decade, total numbers of arrests Iowa City have been climbing, especially since 1996.  Iowa City police made 8,929 arrests in 2002 (according to the ICPD 2002 Annual Report and subsequent corrections), up 1,887 from the previous year.  Proportionately to population, analysis of county statistics from 2000 provided by the Johnson County Jail Task Force shows higher rates of arrests for public intoxication, other liquor law violations, and drug law violations, as well as of drunk driving charges, in Johnson County, UI’s home, as compared to Story and Black Hawk counties, locales of Iowa State and Northern Iowa.  Of course, these figures do not distinguish between students and non-students; but neither do the campus statistics.

            The most current report from UI Public Safety regarding liquor and drug violations lists 145 arrests for liquor violations on campus property and 48 on public property in 2002, for a total of 193, plus 477 referrals for alcohol violations; the report lists 110 arrests for drug violations on campus property 61 on public property for a total of 171, plus 19 drug referrals. The definition of “public property” as that “immediately adjacent to and accessible from the campus such as thoroughfares, streets, sidewalks, and parking facilities” obviously cannot include all public property within easy access of campus.  Alcohol-related citations and arrests in bars or private homes would not be reflected here either, of course.

            In sum, the statistics are crude indicators, nothing like a refined or reliable measure of what actually is going on, although they surely remind us that students are doing things that get them arrested in noticeable numbers.


The Iowa City setting

            Factors often associated with student drinking include a large student body, the importance of athletics, and availability of alcohol near campus (NIH, 2002).  This latter element is strikingly evident in the Iowa City “bar scene,” the most prominent social and recreational outlet for The University of Iowa’s 28,000-plus students, and above all for undergraduates.

            The accessibility and proximity of bars combined with what students perceive to be an absence of other viable late night entertainment options make the downtown Iowa City bars the primary gathering place.  Over the past several years, while a few bars in the vicinity have gone out of business, at least two new ones have opened each year.  This situation is often linked to the opening of the Coral Ridge Mall in 1998 and its adverse effects on downtown Iowa City retail business, and the banning of alcohol from the UI Greek system since the death of a student by asphyxiation after a night of drinking at a fraternity house.  That tragedy led the UI Greek system to change to a “dry” campus where alcohol was strictly prohibited from all Greek houses.

            Most counts put the number of downtown bars at about 40, with another dozen or so within walking distance.  Bars vary in character and reputation and draw different clientele; some are known as “Greek bars,” frequented by fraternity and sorority members; others as “quiet bars” or writerly hangouts; others as live music venues or places to shoot pool; others as “townie” bars with little student patronage.

            The key fact here is that the high concentration of bars creates opportunities for drinking, and thus opportunities for underage drinking, public intoxication and, perhaps, disobedience and unruliness as reflected in the offense of “interference with official acts.”  To draw a link between the disproportionate number of bars and rates of alcohol violations is only common sense.  To say this is the only explanation overlooks, however, issues of discretion in enforcement or potential for alternative approaches.


The landscape of laws and rules

            The most common alcohol-related charge for young people is possession of alcohol under the legal age (PAULA), under the state law that makes it illegal for a person under 21 to purchase alcohol or have it in “their possession or control.”  Iowa City police issued 2,271 of these citations in 2002, up 56 percent from the prior year’s 988 (1,430 in 2000 and 2,107 in 1999).  The PAULA is a simple misdemeanor, which carries a fine ($100 for first offense, $200 for second, plus costs and surcharges) and also the loss of driver’s license upon a second offense.

            Under state law, public intoxication is simple misdemeanor carrying a $50-500 fine.  Two years after a conviction, an individual with no other criminal convictions may petition to have the offense expunged.

            The most common drug charge under state law is possession of a controlled substance; if it is marijuana, the first offense is a serious misdemeanor punishable by a minimum of two days in jail and a $250 fine plus costs and surcharges, and a six-month suspension of the offender’s driver’s license.  Possession of drug paraphernalia, or equipment to be used in combination with a controlled substance, is a simple misdemeanor carrying a minimum $50 fine.

            Also under state law, anyone who “resists or obstructs” a police officer in the performance of his or her duty may be charged with interference with official acts, a simple misdemeanor punishable by a minimum $250 fine (becoming an aggravated misdemeanor if the officer is injured).

            Under municipal ordinance, city police also enforce a ban on drinking alcoholic beverages in public places and an open container law, and this year have the added duty of issuing citations for violations of the new ordinance barring individuals under 19 from being in bars at all after 10 p.m.

            A federal law that enters into our discussion is a 1998 act which makes students convicted under either state or federal law of possession or sale of a controlled substance ineligible for federal government “grant, loan, or work assistance” for a certain period—ranging from one year for a first conviction of possession (and two years for a first conviction for sale) to indefinite for a third or subsequent conviction for possession (or a second for sale).  It has been estimated that tens of thousands of students nationwide are at risk of losing assistance under current enforcement, although University of Iowa reports suggest fewer than a dozen students a year may be potentially affected.  Although student loan applications are self-reports and seldom investigated, failure to disclose a conviction is technically perjury.

            An additional consideration is written and unwritten policies of many professional schools (such as colleges of law or medicine), as well as licensing boards and workplaces, regarding criminal convictions.  We are unable to gauge the extent to which drug and alcohol convictions may affect students’ plans or prospects in these areas, but we suspect that at the very least such situations may lead to more lying on application forms—i.e., the corrosive implications are somewhat broader than what might be first supposed.

            Alcohol and drugs are banned entirely from UI residence halls; the University has its own disciplinary system for incidents involving drug and alcohol on university premises apart from any external legal proceedings.  The geography of the campus, however, creates a strange bifurcation in consequences, since no disciplinary sanctions are imposed for charges on non-University property and information regarding those incidents does not appear in students’ UI records.


Explanations and responses

            We would summarize what we learned from sessions with university authorities in areas of student services, residence services, and public security as follows:  The University of Iowa takes a low-tolerance yet discretionary approach to alcohol possession and use, with zero tolerance toward drug offenses.  University officials cited accessible cheap alcohol and a “tradition” of acceptability toward drinking as major factors in student alcohol use and abuse.  Iowa City Police Department leaders expressed a belief that bar owners are largely to blame for both underage drinking and excessive consumption downtown.  They also emphasized that police use considerable discretion in issuing charges and that people who draw attention to themselves are the ones who get the attention.  Students, meanwhile, repeat the common refrain that young people will continue to drink regardless of efforts to stop them, with risk and prohibition merely enhancing the attraction.  Students also tend to see bars as rather harmless social fun and concerns about excessive drinking as overblown.

            Student Services receives UI police complaints for incidents on campus, and follows up cased that fall under UI’s code of student life.  The office periodically gets city information and combines and cross-references it with student information, but seldom gets involved with off-campus incidents—only three percent of cases last year were off-campus.  The estimate is that including city arrests in the university disciplinary process would increase the caseload five times!

            We were told that the university disciplinary system by definition is not punitive; rather, it is intended to be corrective.  After an arrest for public intoxication, for instance, a student is required to go through alcohol assessment and education; after multiple incidents the student may be put in a treatment program.  A “two strikes” policy for public intoxication results in suspension after a second incident.  The office says it is most concerned with “self-destructive behavior” and that in fact this is the most common sort of instance; incidents involving belligerence are not common.  (The university earlier this year announced that students are to bear the financial cost of assessment and treatment programs provided free in the past; but we do not have information on previous institutional expenses nor on costs to individuals now.)

            Discretion is used in residence halls when it comes to alcohol; we were told that for “moderate amounts of alcohol or someone wandering down the hall with a beer,” students are not referred to police unless they are uncooperative, with underage drinkers treated no differently from those who are 21 or older.

            On the other hand, both Student Services and Residence Services representatives agreed there is zero tolerance for drug use in the residence halls.  Students found in possession of marijuana, in whatever amount, are required to undergo substance abuse counseling whether or not criminal charges involved; there are “no gray areas” (with possible exceptions if residence staff have a hard time establishing ownership, or an incident involves a large group and multiple arrests).  In addition, suspicion of drug use brings an immediate police response.  In the past, residence assistants could first investigate on their own; now RAs are instructed that “for their own safety” they are to contact the hall director rather than confront activity themselves, and if the director believes drug use is taking place that person contacts police.  (Hall coordinators are the only ones authorized enter residents’ rooms without permission; police cannot enter without permission or search warrants.)

            UI Public Safety officials noted that campus drinking quadruples around football season, and expressed some frustration that efforts in past to deal with tailgating raised enough of a furor among alumni to produce essentially “a moratorium in the parking lots” on home football days—although since our conversation President Skorton has made the brave gesture of shutting down one notoriously rowdy locale (albeit one favored particularly by students).

            Both campus and city police told us that in their patrol areas, they concentrate not on drinking per se, but on behavior, e.g., public urination and fights.  Arrests for public intoxication depend not on blood alcohol level but on police interpretation of behavior—plus under the Iowa law one can be arrested for “simulating” public intoxication!  Iowa City police said they arrest nowhere near ten percent—or even one percent—of those who could be arrested for public intoxication; they only consider the egregious cases (favorite illustrations include the fellow who urinated on a cab windshield and another who peed on the pastry section at the mini mart).  Officers are trained to make arrests quickly for probable cause; as for charges of interference with official acts, officers don't have time to give explanations and may abruptly arrest students who don’t back off.

            More aggressive—or as police authorities prefer to call it, “assertive”—enforcement of drug and alcohol laws is partly furthered by special grants for these purposes.  The city police, for instance, has grants that support staffing of patrols downtown and checks on bars (although bar compliance checks have limited effectiveness, they say, because of a “pony express” system that goes into operation alerting other bars to the activity).

            For the most part, students seem neutral toward or even unaware of campus police, but they characterize relations with city police as uneasy.  Some students believe police are too tough on students or have an “agenda;” many offer personal or second-hand anecdotes about people being hassled or arrested for scant cause.  It is the committee’s sense that, although Iowa City’s police force is highly professional, and although inebriated students are highly unreliable witnesses, these eyewitness accounts are common enough to suggest such incidents do on occasion happen, and the tales then circulate actively enough to gain influence disproportionate to their actual incidence.



            Perhaps our report can be useful in anticipation of release of statistics and reports we can expect in the early part of 2004, including our own campus crime figures for 2003, Iowa City’s police report for the year, and the Chronicle of Higher Education’s interpretation of 2002 campus reports nationwide.

            As should be clear by now, we can draw no firm conclusions about whether arrest rates for drug and alcohol-related offenses at Iowa are inordinately high in some absolute sense, high for large public universities, or high by whatever standard.  We do believe the likelihood of youthful indiscretions of a sort that mean graduating with an arrest record is fairly high, perhaps higher than most students and their parents would anticipate.  Indeed, a Cedar Rapids Gazette analysis published last spring showed precisely that point.  We should be mindful that, at the very least, these incidents create some degree of disruption and financial costs to students and their families, and that sometimes the consequences may extend to future education and employment.

            (1) Our first recommendation, directed toward university authorities, would be pursuit of a kind of truth-in-advertising in recruiting and orientation.  We urge the university to be as honest and explicit as possible to prospective students and their parents regarding not only the existence of a boisterous drinking scene around campus but also the high likelihood of arrest and the variety of circumstances under which it may occur.  Students need to know before arrival that Iowa City is not a small town where the local police pour out the kegs and send kids home.

            (2) We think the university needs to be more pro-active and innovative in educating currently enrolled students on the direct consequences of illegal behaviors, and also active in informing students of their rights, e.g. through programs, brochures, flow charts, and other means.  We do not believe simply having the information accessible amidst the minutiae of materials on the web or in the small print of information routinely distributed to all students is sufficient.

            (3) Although we perceive little dispute about adherance to a “hard line” with respect to drunk driving or drug dealing, we think the role of discretion in the response to lower-level alcohol and drug cases deserves to be further explored and continually discussed up and down the chain of procedures and practices, from university authorities to law enforcement to the county prosecutor’s office.

            (4) Specifically, on campus we would urge serious reconsideration of the discrepancy between discretionary treatment of alcohol offenses in the residence halls and the zero-tolerance for even the minutest amount of marijuana.

            (5) We would urge the university to explore greater use of disciplinary procedures and referrals as alternatives to criminal proceedings, to study models from campuses where this is more the rule than the exception, and perhaps to look into broader legal changes that might strengthen this approach.  Reliance on an internal system to a far greater degree than the courts, for instance, seems to operate at The University of Vermont because of (a) changes in state law that “decriminalized” liquor law violations, making them civil offenses, and (b) an admitted “understanding” between campus police and local prosecutors that the college will handle minor violations (e.g., a student caught with a single joint or beer) through its own judiciary, while dealing or possession of large amounts of drugs will go through the criminal courts.

            (6) We likewise hope the city and law enforcement can consider, and discuss with university officials and students, other options to arrest much more carefully, e.g., seeking disciplinary rather than criminal routes and developing graduated ways of dealing with offenses.

            (7) The university, the city, law enforcement and students themselves all need to work to open channels of information and communication.  Considerable programming already occurs in the residence halls, and some educational efforts in the Greek system, but little of it reaches most off-campus residents.  City police say they would like to expand community relations work but have neither the time nor the resources.  The university and city in conjunction should explore possibilities and funding sources for activities aimed at enhancing police-student relations.

            (8) Students who complain about adults nattering at them need to take more responsibility for educating each other about the laws, their rights, and consequences of illegal acts.  Students themselves also may hold the key to changing the “rebellion” and “anti-establishment” associations with drinking and making the issue less of a joke.  Both police and university officials we spoke with offered the thought that students see drinking and drug use as a kind of “game” in which they are not going to get caught; but perhaps the assumption on all parts should be that they are going to get caught, and the emphasis should turn to what happens after that.

            (9) As a measure in the fairly short term, perhaps the University and its faculty, staff and student organizations could organize some sort of ongoing forum for discussion and innovative thinking about these issues that includes all the constituencies involved and in which students really take initiative and leadership roles.

            (10) In the longer term, we hope the idea of a detox/education center that periodically arises and is laid to rest is not abandoned altogether.  Such a project necessarily would involve city/university cooperation, medical personnel, facilities and custodians, and also a peer counseling and peer education program.  The financing and coordination would be complicated, and from the “risk management” perspective the idea raises questions of liability.  At this time it is seen as too complex and costly to pursue.  Nevertheless, perhaps elements of this approach are worth developing, especially the ideas for peer involvement.





Task force members


Judy Polumbaum (chair & report author), Professor, Journalism and Mass Communication, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


Warren Piette, Professor, Department of Dermatology, College of Medicine


John B. Whiston, Clinical Professor and Legal Clinic Supervisor, College of Law


Matt Blizek, Political Science major and UISG VP, 2002-03, Centerville, Iowa


Raychel Kolen, Music/Journalism major, Iowa City


Gillian Rosenberg, Political Science/ Journalism major, Winnetka, Illinois




Selected resources


University of Iowa, Policies affecting students: http://www.uiowa.edu/~vpss/policies/policies.html


University of Iowa Department of Residence Services Policies, Rules & Regulations: http://www.uiowa.edu/%7Eresserve/guidebook/policies.htm#alcohol, http://www.uiowa.edu/%7Eresserve/guidebook/policies.htm#drugs


Iowa City Police Department arrest blotter: http://www.iowa-city.org/police/arrests.asp


Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE) Campus Security Statistics website: http://ope.ed.gov/security/Search.asp  (UI figures: http://ope.ed.gov/security/InstIdCrime.asp?CRITERIA=R)


National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “A call to action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at U.S. Colleges” (April 2002).