Division of Student Affairs & Enrollment Services

The True Numbers at VCU and Across the Nation

What are the True Numbers and why advertise them?

TRUE NUMBERS is the term we at VCU have chosen to refer to survey statistics about college students' health-related behavior. The term is needed and advertised because a large gap exists between what students perceive to be normal behavior and what students report on surveys about their real behavior. The two tables and graphs below provide pictures of the misperception gap for both alcohol use and cigarette smoking.

Perception vs. Reality: Alcohol Use
Drinks Perception Reality  
0 4% 22% alcohol graph
1-2 6% 14%
3-4 32% 17%
5-6 33% 16%
7-8 7% 8%
9-10 7% 6%
>10 2% 5%

Perception vs. Reality: Frequency of Cigarette Smoking
Days of Smoking Perception Reality  
0 2% 70% smoking chart
1-29 35% 15%
Every day 55% 10%

As you can see, the TRUE NUMBERS are much healthier than students think.

So, why does advertizing the truth matter?

Research over several decades suggests that correcting misperceptions by telling people the truth about health “norms” provides valuable support for health. If students know that the true “social norm” for their peers is healthy, then they are more likely to persist in their own healthy choices.

The National Social Norms Resource Center was created to facilitate more interventions and research related to "Social Norms Marketing." This Center awarded VCU’s Office of Health Promotion a grant to create, conduct and evaluate a social norms marketing campaign at VCU.

For a mountain of information about social norms and college students, visit www.socialnorms.org.

How are the True Numbers obtained and measured?

VCU uses a survey tool called the "National College Health Assessment" (NCHA) to gather the numbers. The NCHA was developed by the American College Health Association (ACHA) and an interdisciplinary team of college health professionals. The instrument is a Scantron booklet that contains approximately 300 questions that assess health, including questions on protective behaviors (a fancy way of saying "strategies") and on risk. The survey also assesses perceived norms and a wide variety of health issues including injury prevention, personal safety and violence; alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use; sexual health; weight, nutrition and exercise; and mental health.

To learn about the reliability and validity of the National College Health Assessment (NCHA), please read information provided by the ACHA: www.acha-ncha.org.

How does VCU get its True Numbers?

In 2002, VCU's Office of Health Promotion began the work required by our four-year longitudinal research grant awarded by the National Social Norms Resource Center. This grant pays the cost of our annual NCHA surveys as well as our media campaign. The OHP's research procedure is as follows:

This study has been approved by the VCU Office of Institutional Research Board.

How do VCU's True Numbers compare to the National Numbers?

chartHealth behavior data collected at VCU is fairly consistent with the national data for other large urban universities. This encourages us to think that our findings are reasonably accurate. The good news at VCU is that over the past two years, our campaign "VCU students are healthier than you think!" and raffles advertising that "It pays to know the True Numbers" appear to be associated with an increase in the number of VCU students who correctly estimate 0-4. This is a 14 percent improvement over the national data for 2003.

How true is True?

(Translation: Do students lie on surveys?)

Good question. We worry about that, too. Every year a handful of surveys (less than a few dozen) are deleted from the data set for silly and bogus answers. For example, a student who responds that he is 99 years old having sex 69 times a day and drinking 100 drinks at a sitting is not included in the data set.

While no one can be certain about the accuracy of any survey data, studies about the validity of self-reported data suggest that if the behavior is legal and if the subjects feel secure that their responses are anonymous, most tell the truth. The VCU students with whom we have discussed this issue say they "tell it like it is." Several students have noted: "Heck, it's too much work to lie on surveys anyway; it's just easier to tell the truth." In addition, it is reassuring that the responses for several large national data sets are consistent.

For more information

If you have additional questions about the NCHA survey at VCU, the validity of self-reported data, or our marketing campaign, you are encouraged to contact Linda Hancock, FNP, PhD, primary investigator, "VCU students are healthier than you think!" Social Norms Project:
Linda Hancock

VCU Wellness Resource Center

815 S. Cathedral Place
Richmond VA 23284
Phone: (804) 828-9355

Hours: 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Monday–Friday

US Mail: P.O. Box 842022
Richmond, VA 23284-2022
Email: thewell@vcu.edu

Virginia Commonwealth University
Division of Student Affairs & Enrollment Services
The VCU Wellness Resource Center
815 S. Cathedral Place
P.O. Box 842022
Richmond VA 23284-2022
Phone: (804) 828-9355
E-mail: thewell@vcu.edu
Page Last Update: June 13, 2010