Reducing Risk and Liability in Overnight Campus Visits

Tim Goral's picture
Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Rising high school juniors and seniors are beginning to set their sights on the college admissions process—a long and winding road that typically includes web-based research, counselors, essays, and overnight visits to experience campus cultures.

Sounds good.

Yet, for too many students, these overnights include a different kind of education: underage drinking and intimate sexual behavior, in some cases for the first time.

New research from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University (Pa.) and SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) reveals that roughly one in six teens surveyed (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.

Often, this was the students’ first brush with these risky behaviors. More than half of teens who reported drinking during the overnight visit said they had done so for the first time.  About the same percentage 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.

This is a cautionary tale to college administrators. Why?

  • These young people are at risk for injury, death, and disease.
  • Such experiences may create a social norm for behaviors throughout college.
  • Colleges and universities may incur liability for outcomes related to risky behaviors engaged in by minors on campus.

Overnight college visits are a balancing act for universities. A vibrant social scene can be part of the college experience, but it can be tricky to provide structure and boundaries while still offering an authentic, inside look at the college.

What Can colleges Do?

Admissions offices are always a little worried about students and visitors during their time on campus, says Danny Green, associate vice president for enrollment at Meredith College (N.C.).
“We promote a safe, secure environment with lots of support, and we do our best to provide just that,” he says. That means fully prepping student hosts, clearly articulating and enforcing campus rules, and knowing where visiting students will be, and when. “Our admission hosts have a complete, detailed schedule of all activities, classes, meals, entertainment, and meetings made especially for the visiting student,” Green adds.

Some other actions college and university administrators can take to help ensure student safety:

  • Assess the current high-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.
  • Avoid weekend overnight visits.
  • Train hosts and have each sign a social contract about acceptable behaviors on their part and the part of their visitor.

A safe college visit starts at home. Colleges can encourage parents to accompany their teens on campus visits, to discuss with their teens the choices they may have to make and how to best respond, and to communicate about policies and expectations with administrators. Teens need to recognize the choices they may face on campus visits, understand the expectations of their parents and the college, and consider ahead of time what choices they want to make in moments of decision.

Open, honest dialogue between parents and their students is important—decades of research from SADD indicates that kids whose parents consistently communicate expectations about drinking, drug use, and sex make better decisions about personal behavior—but colleges and universities play a role, too.

Communicating about school policies, as well as risks and potential consequences of such behaviors, can reduce problems. Indeed, promoting such dialogue early, often, and consistently among those interfacing with prospective students and parents (including admissions, athletics, and academic departments)—beginning with accepted-student weekends and continuing through summer visitation days, first-year orientation, and first-semester programming—can go a long way toward keeping young people safe and best position them for a successful academic experience.

With a new season of college visits fast approaching, the issue of on-campus supervision for high school students has particular urgency. Now is the time to put in place substantial, meaningful safeguards—before the long and winding road becomes a dangerous one.

—Stephen Wallace, a school psychologist and adolescent counselor, is an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (www.caresu.org) at Susquehanna University (Pa.) and an adviser to SADD.