New course on alcohol, finances required for UT freshmen

6:45 PM, Mar 5, 2013   |    comments
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The University of Tennessee hopes to better prepare students for graduation by starting their education before freshmen set foot on campus.

More than 4,000 incoming freshman will be required to complete an online course next year that for the first time covers topics like alcohol use and personal finances.

It's a crash course UT Senior Zach Brown says he could have used.

"I didn't drink alcohol in high school," said Brown. "Some of my suitemates, my roommates, they definitely did in high school and it was something they were used to."

But Brown says it caught him off guard.

"I wasn't used to it at all, and I kind of came in blindsided," said  Brown.

Six hours from home and a kid who decided to play by the rules, he could have felt left out.

"But once I went to orientation, met my orientation leaders, I knew I was hooked from the start," said Brown.

He wanted to help future incoming freshman make smoother transitions and became an orientation leader and a peer mentor.

He says on an officially dry-campus, talking about alcohol can get swept under the rug.

"You will be around students who are going to drink on campus. But really the issues that affect drinking and how to do it responsibly is something I wish I would have known," said Brown.

The new online course will teach students the university's policy about alcohol use and inform them of the possible legal consequences as well.

They'll also get some basic knowledge about what to do if they have to care for someone who has overindulged.

Safety Environment Education (SEE) Director Ashley Blamey helped develop the alcohol education component of the course.

She says they looked at what top 25 universities offered they're students and tried to take it a step further.

They tailored the course to UT students by using images that will be familiar to them from campus and using data and statistics from their student body.

For example, she says UT students who reported they chose not to drink on the 2012 Annual Health & Wellness Survey had an average 3.5 GPA.

She says the course will also address misconceptions about alcohol on UT campus.

"I think they think that almost everyone drinks. I think they believe they will be alone [if they choose not to drink]," says Blamey. "Our students actually drink far less than what an incoming class will believe."

For example, Blamey reports that amongst UT students who completed the 2012 Annual Health and Wellness Survey, 39% reported they do not consume any alcohol on a weekly basis.

Then there's the course's cash component.

For many students, freshmen year is the first time they can sign for their own credit card or lease.

"It seems like there's freedom at first, but then they realize there's a lot of accountability," said Dr. Ruth Darling, Assistant Provost for Student Success.

She says that students who leave UT before graduation often cite financial reasons, so next year freshman will log on to learn about picking financial aid packages, creating budgets, and the catches that come with credit.

"It's easy to begin incurring debt and they don't realize the implications of what it means when they sign that line about a credit card or a lease for an apartment," says Darling.

"I think it's an absolutely great thing to have and to talk about," said Brown, who says he's had to counsel freshmen on both issues.

Organizers say they're not naive enough to think one online course will completely change student behavior.

But Blamey says it's a chance to capture student's attention  before they have to compete with the distractions of campus.

"Nobody buys something because they heard it one time," said  Blamey. "We understand reaching our students is about multiple messages and multiple venues."

Both Darling and Blamey also say parental investment will be a big component of the courses success.

They encourage parents to discuss their expectations with their freshmen before they get to campus as well.

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