As we noted earlier, yesterday’s edition of USA Today reported the results of a study that claimed to show that — the paper’s words — “College Freshmen Study Booze More Than Books.” In this post we take a look at where that study came from.

USA Today described the study as having been conducted by “William DeJong, a professor at Boston University School of Public Health,” and as having been “sponsored” by Outside the Classroom, “a Boston-based company that offers alcohol-prevention programs to colleges.” It said the study had been presented at the annual meeting of NASPA, a student personnel administrators’ association, and quoted NASPA’s executive director, Gwendolyn Jordan Dungy, as expressing “surprise” at the study’s results.

The paper was being less than forthcoming with its readers, however, as the corporate press release from which it took Dungy’s quote demonstrates.

William DeJong is a professor at Boston University, as USA Today reported, but he’s also Director of Program Research and Development for Outside the Classroom (OTC), and it was in that capacity — as an employee of a privately held, for-profit company, that he conducted his “study.”

So where does NASPA come in? Well, OTC has been a sponsor of NASPA since 2001, and NASPA has been touting OTC’s products in press releases since at least 2003.  The company is listed as one of NASPA’s six Strategic Partners on the NASPA website — depending on the partnership level OTC has purchased, that status may represent an annual contribution of as much as $100,000 or more.

OTC is paying NASPA to promote its products … and it paid for the chance to present the findings of its study at their conference as well.

The NASPA website lists OTC as one of eight Gold Level Sponsors of its 2009 national conference, with Gold Sponsorship defined as reflecting a donation of $15,000 or more.  A partnership benefits chart lists the privileges associated with Gold Sponsorship as including a “brief speaking opportunity at national conference” and an “opportunity to co-present a workshop.”

As it turns out, OTC received far more than just a “brief speaking opportunity” at this year’s conference. It was granted two separate 75-minute workshops: one promoting its Alcohol Prevention Coalition (APC) and another promoting its AlcoholEdu web service. It was given space and time for a four-hour “Meeting of Founding Partners” of the APC, and an OTC employee was one of three panelists on a workshop entitled “Alcohol Prevention Excellence: Successful Strategies from Award-Winning Campuses.” In all, OTC representatives participated in four  of NASPA’s ten sessions on campus alcohol issues, and ran at least three of those four. NASPA identified two of OTC’s four sessions as corporate events — as infomercials, in essence.

OTC has an obvious interest in promoting the idea that American college students are drinking to excess — the more the public can be convinced that student drinking is a crisis, the more demand there will be for OTC’s products. And given OTC’s support for NASPA, OTC’s interests in this arena are NASPA’s interests as well. 

In the full version of the press release quote that USA Today excerpted, NASPA’s Dungy was quite forthright in linking the study’s findings to a pitch for OTC: 

“As student affairs professionals, we view the issue of college drinking as one of the biggest threats to our effectiveness as educators. Our hope is that this new finding will motivate all those within the academy, and even the larger community, to join us as we redouble our efforts to de-emphasize the role of alcohol in college life. Indeed, while comprehensive prevention programming has always been an imperative, it is clearly now more important than ever.

(Emphasis added.)

There’s nothing illegitimate in Dungy providing this sort of support for a funder, by the way. NASPA is forthright about its relationship with Outside the Classroom, and OTC’s press release — distributed on NASPA letterhead — makes no secret of the ties between the two groups. If journalists (and bloggers) fail to make those connections clear, that’s mostly their failure, not NASPA’s or OTC’s.

As we noted this morning, however, USA Today’s headline (“College Freshmen Study Booze More Than Books”) seriously misrepresented the findings of OTC’s research, and OTC and NASPA do have to take some responsibility for that — their press release was entitled “College Students Spend More Time Drinking Than Studying.” And if OTC’s study was itself flawed, as the evidence suggests it was, NASPA has to take some responsibility for that as well. 

More on those two issues in our next post.