Assessing High-Risk Behaviors

Effective assessment of high-risk behaviors involves collecting data to quantify substance misuse, risky sexual behavior, crime, or violent behavior among students, along with the related primary and secondary harms caused by those behaviors to students, faculty, staff, and the surrounding community.

Assessment also can identify the environmental influences that may be directly or indirectly affecting student risky behavior, such as existing policies, enforcement practices, access to substances, or the promotion of high-risk practices or rituals. High-risk behaviors by students and the related harms to the campus community can negatively affect the learning environment in a variety of ways.  

Look for key patterns of high-risk behavior, especially among groups.

A variety of valid and reliable student surveys can measure risky behaviors. Effective assessment requires analyzing the data from several perspectives and searching for trends within subpopulations, such as academic colleges, residence halls, athletic teams and clubs, student organizations, and fraternities and sororities.    

Look for connections to key aspects of the campus and community environment.

Looking beyond the behaviors themselves can help assess the environmental influences that may be enabling behaviors, such as high-risk promotions, rituals, and practices; ineffective policies, enforcement, or adjudication; apathy or encouragement from college faculty or staff; lack of intervention by fellow student bystanders; or spaces and places across campus where unsafe behaviors can occur. Connecting these environmental elements to behavior data enables the campus to change behavior by changing these elements.

Assess current attitudes and beliefs along with behaviors.

Research has found a direct relationship between the perceptions students have about what is considered normal behavior by fellow students and the adoption of high-risk behaviors. Many student surveys include measurement of normative perceptions, attitudes toward high-risk behavior, and perceptions of campus policies and messages. These data can be used to correct misperceptions and change prevailing beliefs and attitudes that contribute to an unsafe environment.


Engs, R. C., Diebold, B. A., & Hansen, D. J. (1996). The drinking patterns and problems of a national sample of college students, 1994. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, 41(3), 13–33.

Hingson, R. W., Zha, W., & Weitzman, E. R. (2009). Magnitude of and trends in alcohol-related mortality and morbidity among U.S. college students ages 18–24, 1998–2005. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, Suppl. 16, 12–20.


Featured Resources

Presents findings of cross-sectional surveys of high school graduates that have been completed since 1976. Includes comparisons between those that attended college and peers that did not (sometimes called "the forgotten half"). Findings offer an important longitudinal snapshot that captures trends in drug use for both groups and its effects across the lifespan.

The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research
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Offers a straightforward method for gathering and reporting student survey data on substance use-related problems. Administrators must understand the nature and extent of these problems at their institutions in order to develop effective programs and policies to reduce alcohol- and other drug-related (AOD) problems on campus.

The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention

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Assists college administrators in identifying factors within the campus environment that contribute to alcohol-related problems. These factors are examined within the context of the public health approach, which emphasizes how the environment shapes behavior. Methods for identifying problems include scanning, analysis, response, and assessment. The publication also contains scanning and analysis exercises and selected resources. In addition, some analysis and scanning exercises are also provided in an online format, which can be downloaded, distributed, and used electronically.

U.S Department of Education
Cover image of the Campus Climate Survey Validation Study Final Technical Report resource

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