Substance Abuse and College Students

Posted by Sara Niemiec on Aug 3, 2018 8:00:00 AM


College students in the United States are among some of the highest risk demographics for engaging in substance abuse. The university environment is often the first time that some of these students have been free from parental supervision, placed in a high-stress academic environment that is coupled with peer pressure and a high degree of personal responsibility for balancing work, school, and academics. Some students may feel separation anxiety from leaving their home and family for the first time. The university environment can also be full of students who may be having their parents or relatives foot the bill, leading to a distorted sense of fiduciary responsibility. Overall, it is estimated that those enrolled in a full-time college program are twice as likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than those who don’t attend college.


It is estimated that somewhere around 30% of college students meet the qualifications for a substance use disorder. Across the thousands of universities and technical schools across the nation, this equates to hundreds of thousands of students who could be engaging in substance abuse during a time when they need to focus and prepare themselves for the rest of their lives. Not to mention the fact that adolescence is a time during which the brain undergoes a significant amount of development that could be impaired by substance abuse.


Students may be able to find the help they need on campus in the form of support groups, counselors, and among peers, but structured support for addiction recovery in a college setting is still a far cry from being a common part of the infrastructure in college. There are plenty of services and support for marginalized populations such as minorities and LGBTQ members, but addiction continues to be a taboo that schools are hesitant to provide support for let alone acknowledge as a problem.


College graduates tossing their hats-Many students in college have  suffered with substance abuse.


Stats on Substance Abuse in College

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has estimated that roughly 1.2 million college students engage in drinking alcohol. Furthermore, 63% of college students have reported drinking alcohol within the last month, while 41% of reported being intoxicated at least once in their college careers. One-third of college students also report having engaged in binge drinking behavior within the last month. Here are some more stats on drinking in college:


  • Annually, 100,000 college students are the victim of some sexual assault, also known as date rape.
  • Annually, 700,000 college students are assaulted by another student with alcohol involved.
  • Annually, roughly 1800 college students die from alcohol-related causes
  • 700,000 college students use marijuana on a daily basis, nearly one out of every 20 students.
  • More than 40% of college students have used an illicit substance within the past year.
  • 24% of college students have used an illicit substance in the past month


Within the past month, college students across the nation have used:

  • Alcohol – 63%
  • Marijuana – 22.2%
  • Amphetamine – 3.8%
  • Tranquilizers – 1.8%
  • Cocaine – 1.4%
  • Ecstasy – 1%
  • Barbiturates, Hallucinogens, LSD – 2.5%
  • Heroin – 0.2%


Collegiate Recovery Programs

It’s difficult for college students to find the support and services they would need to stay sober and successful in their college careers. However, a national movement is underway to instate the correct programs and services to support college students and help them avoid falling into substance abuse behavior. Collegiate Recovery Programs aim to create an environment that supports sobriety in college campuses, in other words, a collegiate recovery community.


The college lifestyle isn’t exactly the most conducive to sobriety, what with football games, Greek life, parties, and high-stress academics, but CRP’s are spreading across campuses everywhere. Some students may be exposed to substance use for the first time, or they may be returning to college after a hiatus involving some form of rehab from substance abuse. Either way, the susceptible population of potential addicts needs some extra support to thrive in the college environment. Today there are more than 150 Collegiate Recovery Programs in place across the nation. Collegiate Recovery Programs help students through the use of:


  • Programs and Activities that keep students active and social without substances
  • Inclusive celebrations and holidays festivities
  • Mental Health Counseling
  • Support Groups
  • Weekly Dinners
  • Substance Abuse Therapy
  • Academic Tutoring
  • Study Groups
  • Meditation
  • Peer Support
  • Professional Development


The University of Alabama Birmingham hosts its recovery community programs. For example, the annual Sober Spring Break is a week of activities and events that offer students the chance to let loose and enjoy spring break without having to engage in substance abuse behavior. Sober Spring Break is a chance for those in recovery as well as those who do not drink to have fun in a sober environment. At the University of Alabama, students get access to trips involving rock climbing, kayaking, workshops, and community cookouts.


Sober Housing

Many college campuses provide specialty sober dorms for students that would like to stay away from illicit substances. Currently, at least 50 campuses across the nation offer sober on-campus housing where no alcohol or drugs are allowed. It is already illegal for students to consume these substances, but some colleges don’t make it illegal to possess materials while on campus. Schools that don’t allow this are known as dry campuses, and even the possession of drugs or alcohol can result in serious consequences.


The need for specialty housing to help those in recovery is extremely important. One of the first things that recovering addicts learn in recovery is to avoid the environments, peoples, and activists that may trigger them to relapse. In college, students return to their dorms to decompress from the rigors of class and spend time with friends. In many residence halls, students have to return to their peers partying with alcohol and weed. For someone in recovery or someone who does not party, trying to relax in a sober environment could be nearly impossible without the inclusion of sober dormitories.


Sober dorms help not only those in recovery but they also the help the overall school. Students do not necessarily need to be in recovery to live in a sober dormitory. For example, they could have religious obligations that prohibit them from engaging in substance use, or they could have athletic requirements that don’t allow them to binge drink or take harmful substances. When colleges provide access to sober housing options for students, they open the door for more demographics to attend their school. Plus, when students visit their friends in dry dorms, they get a chance to see the upsides of living and having fun in an environment that doesn’t require substance use.


According to data from the Association of Recovery in higher education. 95% of students who have access to these types of programs do not relapse, while the general population has a roughly 60% relapse rate. That is nearly a 12 times likelihood for staying sober. In 2015, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a law that made every university in the state require sober housing options for students.


Why do College Students Abuse Drugs and Alcohol

Alcohol and drug abuse among college students can be attributed to many different factors related to the academic and social environment of college. College students have the reputation of being insulated from the pressures of the “real world,” but the truth is that even this micro-community holds some of the same difficulties and demands that the rest of the world holds for adults. Here are some reasons that college students may turn to drugs and alcohol:


Peer Pressure

Peer pressure can occur in nearly any social situation. As primates, we are wired to be socially accepted and loved, so it’ natural that we sometimes do things to fit in. In college, students are surrounded by peers who may be experimenting or actively promoting the use of psychoactive substances. Students could feel pressure to have a good time or they may see college as a time to try things they may never have the chance to do again.



College students face a significant amount of pressure from different sources during their college careers. For example, the course loads of classes, holding down part-time jobs, social events, relationships, Greek life, etc.… Many may turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to cope with these daily stresses. What could start as a small nicotine habit to deal with stress could turn into a full-blown reliance on alcohol or tobacco to relax.



Many students go to college unsure of what kind of degree or career they want to pursue. They could wind up enrolled in classes they do not understand or do not want to follow through with. What’s more, some students wind up overburdening themselves with course loads that are too much for them, but they could feel as though they had to uphold their grades to the detriment of their health. Students may also abuse stimulant drugs to stay awake and focused on doing well in class.



As stated above, some students may think that college is a chance to try out new substances or behavior that couldn’t do while living with their parents or while working full time. College is the time to try new things, but it is also important not to try something that could be addictive and dangerous.


What Substances do College Students Use?

Trends in substance abuse change with the times, whether it’s the development of new drugs or the introduction of a cultural phenomenon that have their substance popularity. The most common substances abused by college students are those that promote socialization and more focus and alertness. Here are the most common substances abused by college students.



Alcohol remains the most popular substance of choice for recreational use in college. Unsurprisingly, alcohol also makes up the majority of substance-related problems on college campuses, whether it be sexual assault, disorderly conduct, and underage drinking. Drinking is often seen as a rite of passage or necessity for some college campuses. Nearly half of college students have reported binge drinking at some point in their college careers. Excessive drinking is risky not just because of the short-term consequences, but also because of the potential for long-term harm to the user’s body and mind.



Drugs like caffeine, Adderall, Ritalin, and other stimulant drugs are extremely popular with college students. Students in the 18-24 range typically believe themselves capable of “burning the candle at both ends.” For that reason, they may feel comfortable running their bodies into the ground through the use of stimulant drugs that help them complete coursework and maintain a social life.



As the second most used substance among college student, marijuana is a controversial and popular substance that may see increasing usage in the coming years. Marijuana legalization continues to spread across the nation, and on some campuses, usage rates are even higher than alcohol.



MDMA, or ecstasy, first saw its popularity surge in college campuses during the 90’s when the drug was introduced through rave culture. Many college students attend music festivals and show where ecstasy is prevalent.


Greek Life and Substance Abuse

One population of college students that is particularly susceptible to the development of a substance use disorder is Greek Life. Although these organizations were started with the intent of promoting a positive, family-like environment for students to bond over things other than substance usage, they have gained an infamous reputation for being havens of drug and alcohol abuse. According to the U.S. Department of Higher Education Center, students in Greek life are more than 26% more likely to binge drink than other students. They are also more likely than non-Greek members of the student population to abuse prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin.


Next Steps

If you or a loved one are a college student who is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, there is no reason to face it alone. If your school does not provide addiction treatment services or support, there are residential and outpatient treatment centers available to assist you in achieving a sober, successful life. At Landmark Recovery, our addiction specialists are here to provide structured support, peer group therapy sessions, medication-assisted treatment, and extensive alumni programs.



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Topics: Drug and Alcohol

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