College Towns with the Most Alcohol Consumption
Drinking, partying, and college life often go hand in hand. Studies suggest that around 80 percent of college students consume alcohol, and about half of college students binge drink.
College towns are often shaped by their student population, and a young crowd all living in one area can influence the landscape and culture of the surrounding area. Bars, clubs, and other establishments that cater to young people are often found near college campuses where newly minted 21-year-old students are often eager to drink heavily. Some colleges are set in the heart of big cities and surrounded by urban areas while others are more in residential areas with local bars relying on the business of the college kids when they are in residence. Colleges are often surrounded by apartments, college housing, and other temporary living quarters. Sororities and fraternities regularly make up a “Greek Row” either on campus or just outside of it. In short, college students are often closely quartered and within walking distance of campus; therefore, bars and nightlife opportunities tend to be close as well. The proximity of places that serve alcohol can increase the amount of consumption, meaning that the more bars there are in an area, the more people are likely to drink alcohol.
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Alcohol on College Campuses
House parties, Greek events, clubbing, tailgating for college football games, and bar hopping are popular ways to blow off steam and pass the time while in college. Students are often away from home for the first time and enjoying some newfound freedom. Peer pressure and the idea that “everyone is doing it” can also encourage college drinking as young brains are not quite hardwired yet. The parts that are responsible for willpower, decision-making, reward-processing, and thinking through consequences are not fully developed. College students tend to be more impulsive, take bigger risks without as much worry about what might happen, and be more concerned with feeling happy right now and looking good in front of their friends. All of these qualities can increase the odds that a young adult, especially one surrounded by tons of other young adults and fewer older, authoritative adults, will drink alcohol.
Schools that have big athletic programs, such as a big-time football team, and a prominent Greek system tend to have higher rates of alcohol consumption than those that don’t. Commuter colleges, where the majority of students live at home (or not on or near campus) and drive in also have lower rates of partying and drinking than those where students live in fraternities, sororities, on or near campus.
Here are 10 college towns in the United States that are known to have high levels of alcohol consumption (not necessarily in order):
- Madison, Wisconsin: home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Morgantown, West Virginia: home to West Virginia University (WVU)
- Austin, Texas: home to the University of Texas (UT)
- Providence, Rhode Island: home to Providence College
- Chico, California: home to California State University (CSU) Chico
- Boulder, Colorado: home to the University of Colorado (CU)
- Billings, Montana: home to Montana State University, Billings (MSUB)
- New Orleans, Louisiana: home to Tulane University
- Champaign and Urbana, Illinois: home to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- Fargo, North Dakota: home to North Dakota State University (NDSU)
Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Several towns and cities in Wisconsin consistently make the top 10 lists for being some of America’s “drunkest” cities. In fact, four out of the top five in a 2016 survey earned this distinction.4 Madison, Wisconsin came in fourth. In a listing of “party schools” the University of Wisconsin-Madison ranks fifth currently.
With over 40,000 students, the vast majority being undergrads, UW has a vibrant and massive student community. With a highly ranked athletic program, students are proud Badger fans that come out in droves to support their football team. With this often comes tailgating and, you guessed it, drinking. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a strong Greek scene that contributes to higher alcohol consumption. Downtown Madison also boasts many bars and restaurants in close proximity to the college.
Morgantown and West Virginia University
One recent survey ranks West Virginia University as the number one college for drinking. In general, West Virginia is fairly rural, and WVU makes up a big part of the city of Morgantown. Morgantown is a relatively small city, with a population just over 30,000 and the college dominates its culture and landscape with close to 30,000 undergrads enrolled.
Bars in Morgantown tend to have a policy that allows anyone over the age of 18 in the doors as opposed to limiting admission to those of the legal drinking age of 21, which may contribute to underage drinking and looking the other way while it occurs. Students may drink at bars, at each other’s houses, or even out in a field in Morgantown, a town with a definite college and party feel to it.
Austin and the University of Texas
Considered one of America’s hardest drinking cities, Austin, Texas, has a vibrant nightlife with Sixth Street having the feel of smaller version of the famous Bourbon Street in New Orleans, catering to the young bar-hopping crowd. A survey ranked downtown Austin as number one in the entire United States for number of bars per capita with 88 bars in a single zip code, enough for one bar for every 67 people. More bars means more drinking, and over 60 percent of adults in Austin report past-month drinking and nearly a quarter admit to binge drinking, or drinking more than five drinks on an occasion.
The University of Texas is one of the biggest universities in the United States and contributes to the number of young people and college students that make up the Austin population as well as to its party atmosphere. With over 40,000 undergrads, a vibrant Greek community, and a widely popular football team and athletic program, Longhorns are proud to call Austin home.
In Texas, football is considered practically a religion, and college football is no exception. Students regularly attend home games and spend a great deal of time tailgating, drinking, and cheering on their team.
Providence College in Rhode Island
Rhode Island may be the smallest state in America, but it is notorious for some of the highest rates of binge drinking, monthly alcohol use, illicit drug abuse, marijuana use, and alcohol poisoning deaths, all of which rank among the highest in the entire United States. It should come as no surprise then that Providence College (PC) in Providence, Rhode Island, is considered to be a big party school where drinking is commonly considered a normal part of the culture. The Catholic college students at PC work hard and also play hard, often frequenting the local bars in close proximity to the school after finishing a particularly grueling project.
Even though there is no Greek system on campus and students are required to participate in religious curriculum, drinking is a common way to unwind in Providence. As the most populous city in the state, Providence is home to many bars and restaurants.
Chico and California State University, Chico
Of all of the California State University (CSU) campuses, Chico gets the rep for being the biggest party school, with a culture of drinking regularly and a lot. The town of Chico has a small-town feel, and the college plays a big role in its landscape and culture. The vast majority, more than three-quarters, of Chico State students live within two miles of the campus, and the surrounding area is made up of college students and residences. This encourages the party lifestyle as pretty much everyone who lives near the college goes, there and keggers and house parties are commonplace in these neighborhoods. There is also not much of a nightlife in Chico that doesn’t include alcohol, making it hard for students to find other things to do.
Boredom often leads to more drinking. Nearly a quarter of Chico State students report consuming enough alcohol to get intoxicated weekly. The College Town section of Chico is full of liquor stores and outlets, as is the neighboring downtown area, and there are numerous bars and restaurants within walking distance of the school so students don’t have to worry about driving anywhere, promoting more heavy drinking. Big house lots with inviting porches regularly have students hanging out on them, inviting passersby to join in on the fun in the mild California climate.
Boulder and the University of Colorado
The alternative town of Boulder, Colorado, ranked in the top five of the “booziest” cities in 2008 with 9 percent of its residents drinking heavily. With an undergraduate population of over 30,000 students, the University of Colorado (CU), Boulder makes up a significant part of the city’s residents.
Colorado is known for its craft breweries and micro brews, and there are many hot spots in the town of Boulder. A thriving college culture and close proximity to bars and restaurants, as well as large groups of young adults all clustered together, shape the drinking and party atmosphere of Boulder and CU Boulder.
Billings and Montana State University Billings
Heavy drinking can be linked to colder climates and cities like Billings, Montana, definitely fit the bill. Alcohol may be a way to stave off the depression and boredom that can come from colder temperatures and darker days. People are more likely to be stuck inside with nothing better to do so drinking is often taken up.
Montana State University Billings (MSUB) is an integral part of the Billings community. Local businesses cater to the college crowd with cheap drink specials and happy hours to entice young drinkers on a budget. Almost 20 percent of adults in Billings, Montana, engage in binge drinking, making it one of the nation’s hardest-drinking cities and setting up an atmosphere that encourages alcohol consumption, often to excess.
Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana
It’s hard to do a compilation of cities or areas in the United States known for drinking and partying and not include a city like New Orleans, home to Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, and wild Mardi Gras celebrations. Tulane University is at the top of several surveys that rank party schools and college drinking levels.,
With a thriving nightlife right on its doorstep, it is no shock that students at Tulane University consistently have high rates of alcohol consumption. With a “work hard, play hard” motto, close to 90 percent of Tulane University students report past-month drinking, over 60 percent admit to high-risk drinking episodes between two and five times in the past two weeks, and over half of incoming first-year students report high-risk drinking in the last 14 days, which is more than double the rate of students at peer universities.
Students at Tulane do not have to go far to find a party. Between house parties and the large number of bars in the Big Easy (New Orleans has one of the highest rates of bars per capita of any city in the United States), there are many opportunities to imbibe, which students do regularly.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Another large school that is home to more than 30,000 undergrads, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign spans two cities: Champaign and Urbana. Both of these towns are shaped by the university culture and the students who go there.
While the drinking age is still 21, bars in Urbana-Champaign allow people who are 19 and older in their doors, potentially encouraging underage drinking. Of course, students under 21 are not legally allowed to be drinking in the bars; however, it is harder to regulate this once they are inside. In 2015 alone, there were close to 500 minor in possession (MIP) tickets issued after bar raids on the University of Illinois (UI) campus.
UI also hosts a massive party every year on “Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day” that draws a large crowd from neighboring areas. The party scene at UI is renowned, and alcohol is consumed at high levels in Champaign and Urbana as a result.
Fargo and North Dakota State University
Fargo residents and North Dakota State University (NDSU) students may drink alcohol in response to being forced inside due to freezing temperatures. Almost a quarter of all Fargo adults residents report binge drinking.
NDSU students and Fargo residents love a good tailgate, and college football is huge in Fargo, even making the top 15 list as a one of the best places for parking lot parties. First-year students tend to live on campus. Mashing together so many young people away from home for the first time can ramp up peer pressure levels and encourage more drinking.
 Strauss, V. (April 2013). “How Much Do College Students Really Drink?” Washington Post. Accessed January 2, 2017.