What is the relationship between college and substance abuse?

Quick Answer
Alcohol is the substance most abused by college students. Some studies suggest that up to 80 percent of the student population uses alcohol and that about thirty-three percent uses various other drugs. College students have a higher rate of alcohol and drug abuse and addiction than does the general population, and white students abuse substances in greater numbers than do students of color.
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Young adults who leave home to live at a college or university are presented with many new experiences and with first-time exposure to major decision-making. One of the biggest challenges and decisions for the college students (typically defined as those aged seventeen to twenty-five years) is how to deal with the alcohol and drug culture prevalent on college campuses. Parties, Greek organizations, and bars and dance clubs provide temptations to use alcohol and other substances, such as marijuana or other illicit drugs.

For some students, these new experiences and decision-making opportunities result in poor judgment and eventual abuse of alcohol and drugs. A further complication is that students in the United States reach legal drinking age of twenty-one years while in college.

Typical Substances of Abuse

While the use and abuse of marijuana and prescription drugs has increased markedly since the mid-1990s, alcohol is, by far, the drug most abused by college students. Furthermore, large numbers of violations of campus policies, and arrests on campus, involve alcohol intoxication.

Students, like the majority of the general population, also often abuse caffeine in the form of coffee and caffeine-fortified drinks. Beginning around 2000, the consumer market for energy drinks increased dramatically. Energy drinks contain extraordinarily high amounts of caffeine (most between 50 and 200 milligrams of caffeine per serving) and were quickly embraced by college students as a way to stay awake. These drinks have raise short-term and long-term medical concerns.

When many people think of substance abuse, they typically think of hard drugs. However, commonly abused substances, particularly by college students, are prescription drugs such as Percocet, Vicodin, OxyContin, Ritalin, Adderall, Ephedra, and anabolic steroids. These legal drugs are used to get high and, depending on the drug, to stay awake for studying, to enhance athletic ability, to lose weight, or to self-medicate for anxiety, depression, and related mental stresses. Common date rape drugs are GHB, ketamine, and Rohypnol. These drugs are often slipped into drinks or given to people who ingest them unknowingly and cause that person to become incapacitated. In this context, date rape drugs help facilitate sexual assault.

Abuse of hard and prescription drugs by college students does occur, but the main concern among college and other officials is related to alcohol, especially heavy alcohol use known as binge drinking . According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), four out of five students consumes alcohol regularly. Of those who drink, half binge drink. Colleges typically define binge drinking as excessive consumption of alcohol in a relatively short period of time. While the definition of excessive varies across law enforcement and other agencies and organizations, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) says that imbibing at least five drinks on one occasion is binge drinking, while the NIAAA considers binge drinking to mean consuming enough alcohol to bring blood alcohol levels to 0.08 grams of hemoglobin per deciliter (g/dL)—generally four to five drinks within two hours.

College students receive the most attention of any group for their binge drinking. Data suggest that the greatest alcohol consumption by college students occurs when binge drinking and is greatest among students aged eighteen to twenty years old. Binge drinking is a significant problem because of the numbers of other incidents that occur in conjunction with binge drinking. These violations include sexual and other forms of assault, driving under the influence, and violations of college policies. Other consequences may include injuries from falls and vehicle accidents and drowning (either in a body of water or on one’s own vomit). In addition, according the NIAAA, 1,825 students each year die from alcohol-related incidents. Students who binge drink are also likely to see their academic performance deteriorate. As with any abusive behavior, there are many reasons why students partake in binge drinking. One reason is students' tendency to experiment. Drinking, and binge drinking in particular, is also seen as a means to fit in. Some people binge drink as a way to deal with other social and emotional issues, such as stress, isolation, and loneliness.

A particular group of students engages in binge drinking because it is, or may be, a part of the pledging process for Greek organizations or the initiation (hazing) of athletes. These behaviors still occur, even though they violate the charters and rules of Greek organizations, the codes for behavior for athletes, and the behavioral policies of colleges. Some students have died from these rituals.

College Officials’ Response

Colleges and universities are acutely aware of substance abuse and how it affects both the individual and the college community. Because of their missions to educate, institutions across the United States address substance abuse from the moment students first arrive on campus during orientation until they graduate.

Colleges and universities develop alternatives to the bar and party scenes by educating students about the possibilities of recreation without using substances. Colleges and universities also review and revise their policies about substance use and abuse, aiming for prevention of abuse and education rather than punishment (though judicial action is always possible). Specific information about the drug and alcohol policies of a particular college or university can be obtained from that institution.


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