Skip to main content

Studying Abroad or Drinking Abroad

Researchers find that heavier-drinking American college students are more likely to study abroad or intend to study abroad.

American students’ foreign language skills may be lacking, but participation in study abroad programs has quadrupled in the last 20 years, according to a 2009 report by the Open Doors Initiative.

Proponents of study abroad programs tout them as a great way for American students to get out of their comfort zones and experience other cultures. Study abroad program websites contain inspirational quote after inspirational quote claiming that time in another country has changed the life of Ashley or Robert (who now goes by Roberto).

For plenty of students, however, “experiencing other cultures” translates roughly into “partying with other Americans until the wee hours of the morning in another country” (which helps explain the language-learning gap).

The legal drinking age in most of the United States is 21 (to the chagrin of college presidents and students alike). The legal drinking age virtually everywhere else is 18 — at least where drinking isn’t illegal, like those popular student destinations of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Chad.

Some people have argued that college kids go abroad for the express purpose of drinking legally. A former study abroad student myself, I won’t deny that drinking legally before your 21st birthday can be a perk, but I don’t think that alcohol access alone justifies the hassle, much less the expense, of going to school in another country. (I studied in Madrid, where the cava goes down easy.)

Research published online in Addictive Behaviors suggests a different interpretation: College students who were heavier drinkers were more likely to intend to study abroad or have already done so. Researchers also found that participants without study abroad aspirations drank less and experienced fewer “alcohol-related consequences” than their foreign country-bound peers.

The researchers surveyed 2,144 students at a large West Coast university (three of the five authors are at the University of Washington) to explore the differences in drinking habits and consequences among college students who intended to study abroad, students who didn’t plan to and students who had already done so.

The heaviest drinkers were white students who planned to study abroad and non-white students who had already done so. (The phenomenon of white North Americans studying abroad has been gleefully dissected by humorist Christian Landers.)

The authors speculate that for whites, heavy drinking pre-departure might lead to heavy drinking upon arrival; for non-whites, they postulated that the time they spent with heavy-drinking white students while abroad may continue to influence their drinking patterns after their return home.

The team points to personality research demonstrating that “individuals actively opt for environments compatible with their own dispositions, especially during transitional experiences.” In other words, people who are drinkers would likely choose study abroad programs in places they could continue to drink.

Then again, they admit, there might be another explanation entirely: Maybe only students of a higher socioeconomic status study abroad, regardless of ethnicity, and these kids drink more heavily in the first place.