As of fall 2018, approximately 19.9 million Americans were enrolled in college classes, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and that number is expected to increase to 20.5 million by the year 2027. This, of course, makes sense because there are a number of benefits to obtaining a higher-level degree.
62% Of College Students Reported Drinking in Past Month

For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that individuals with college degrees tend to have higher income levels than those without an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate, or other professional degree.

Whereas people with high school diplomas earn approximately $712 per week, those with bachelor’s degrees earn roughly $1,173 weekly. Also, college graduates typically have lower unemployment rates.

However, there are some issues that exist on college campuses today that aren’t quite so beneficial. Among them is the use of drugs.

Current State of College Drug Use

It’s not uncommon for college students to engage in some level of substance use, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). But what types of substances are the most problematic for college populations?


Data provided by the SAMHSA indicates that every day approximately 2,179 college students between the age of 18 and 22 take their very first drink.

Some will begin to use these substances regularly. More than 1.5 million 18 to 22-year-old full-time college students consume alcohol on any given day and one in three engage in binge drinking.

On Sept. 5, 2018 the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) released the results of a 2017 Monitoring the Future survey, a study designed to help better understand substance use trends among young adults attending college versus those who do not. The survey found that alcohol use is higher among college students as approximately 62 percent consumed alcohol in the past month compared to 56.4 percent of young adults not taking college courses.

It’s not just the drinking that is the problem, but more so binge drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Binge drinking occurs when someone consumes a high number of drinks in just two hours, which is about four drinks for women and five for men. This can increase the risk of being assaulted, arrested, or hurt in a car crash, according to the NIAAA.

“Study Drugs”

In addition to drinking, “study drugs” are also finding their way onto college campuses across the nation.

The National Center for Health Research (NCHR) explains that these drugs, such as Adderall or Ritalin, are prescribed to one individual to help ease symptoms related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, those not prescribed these drugs take them in an effort to improve their focus and stay awake to study and hopefully get better grades.

The NCHR further indicates that use of these study drugs has “skyrocketed” over the past 20 years. It’s partially because a longer-acting version of one of these drugs has been created, but also because more and more people are being prescribed ADHD drugs.

Proof of this exists in studies that found that more than one-half of college students with valid ADHD prescriptions have been approached to sell their medications, according to the NCHR. And almost all students misusing this class of drugs admit that they obtained them from someone they know with this particular mental health condition.

One major concern with study drugs is, because they are prescription drugs, many college students who misuse them feel that there is nothing wrong with taking them, even if they themselves don’t have a valid prescription. They also don’t realize that there are risks associated with these particular drugs, some of which include blood pressure issues and heart problems.

Illegal Drugs

According to the SAMHSA, one in five college students admits to using an illicit drug within the previous 30 days, with approximately 1,326 students taking their first illegal drug every single day.

Of illicit drug users, the highest majority admit to marijuana being their drug of choice, with more than 195,000 students using this cannabis-derived drug on a typical day. That being said, the NIDA’s 2017 Monitoring the Future study also found that marijuana use specifically appears to be on the decline for college students.

Dropping from 5.9 percent in 2014 to just over 3 percent in 2017 for college students, marijuana use among non-college attending youth has actually increased over the past five years from just under 9 percent to 13.2 percent in 2017.

Marijuana vaping is currently lower for college students than non-college youth, too, at 5.2 and 7.8 percent respectively.

Based on SAMHSA data, the other drugs taken daily at colleges across the U.S. include:

  • Cocaine: 3,629 students daily
  • Hallucinogens: 3,239 students daily
  • Heroin: 2,590 students daily
  • Inhalants: 991 students daily


While tobacco is legal for use by those over the age of 18 in most states within the United States—New Jersey, Hawaii, and California raised the legal age to 21—it is still an issue of concern for college students.

In fact, a survey conducted by CVS, the Truth Initiative, and the American Cancer Society found that three out of four respondents felt that that tobacco use was problematic for college students.

The same amount (75 percent) reported that they would support the prohibition of tobacco use on campuses.

One reason tobacco use is frowned upon is because of its negative health effects, such as coronary heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Smoking also has an increased risk of death that is higher than those associated with motor vehicle accidents, firearm incidents, alcohol or drug use, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) combined.


Another legal drug, caffeine is consumed by many college students across the nation. A study published in Clinical Nutrition in April 2018 found that 92 percent of college students have consumed caffeine in some form within the prior 12 months.

Coffee was the number-one source of caffeine consumed in this study, which isn’t necessarily problematic on its own. However, the one concern that many healthcare experts have about caffeine intake is in regard to one source in particular: energy drinks.

Consumer Reports measured caffeine levels in 27 different energy drinks and shots and found that, while their amounts of caffeine varied, quite a few actually contained more caffeine than the product indicated. Others didn’t list caffeine amounts at all, leaving users unsure of how much of this substance they’re ingesting.

Intake of too much caffeine and other stimulants can lead to major health issues.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) notes that energy drink-related emergency room visits have doubled in recent years. One in ten of these ER visits resulted in the individual needing to be hospitalized.

Additionally, one in four college students mix these energy drinks with alcohol, increasing their risk of binge drinking by four times, according to the NCCIH.

What makes all of these substances—both legal and illegal—so appealing to individuals in the process of furthering their education?

Common Causes of Drug Use Among College Students

The causes of drug use and misuse vary depending largely on the type of substances being used.

For instance, in February 2018, the International Journal of Preventive Medicine published a study that found that students from lower economic status homes and with tumultuous family relationships tend to have higher rates of drug addiction.

Also, if close friends and family members had drug addiction issues, this also raised the risk of addiction for the college student.

In regard to alcohol use and abuse, the NIAAA reports that there are various aspects of college life that can increase the likelihood that students will develop an issue with drinking too often or too much. These include:

  • Having a lot of unstructured time
  • Alcohol being more available
  • Lack of consistent enforcement for underage drinking in college
  • Reduced interaction with adults

As mentioned previously, use of study drugs is generally a student’s attempt to get more focused or to stay more awake while studying. Their appeal is further increased when a course load is high, or important projects and tests are due. Energy drinks provide these same effects, also acting as an intensifier when mixed with alcohol.

Drug and Alcohol Use and Greek Life

Another factor that can put college students at risk of developing drug or alcohol-related issues is participation in Greek life.

Membership in fraternities and sororities offers the opportunity for students to create new friendships, learn leadership skills, and engage in community service.

However, the NIDA explains that almost half of those involved with these organizations showed symptoms consistent with alcohol use disorder by the time they turned 35.

This study also found that, when compared to college students not involved in Greek life and non-college youth, marijuana use by students involved in a residential fraternity or sorority while in college had a “significantly higher” likelihood of continuing to use this drug well beyond their college years.

Impact of Drug Use on Students Taking College Courses

According to research published in the Journal of College Student Development, more than two out of three college students (69 percent) reported experiencing negative consequences after using illicit drugs or misusing prescription medications. These include:

  • Saying or doing something that later left the student feeling embarrassed
  • Acting impulsively then regretting the action
  • Feeling guilty or ashamed
  • Failing to fulfill expectations (such as completing homework or studying)
  • Not going to classes
  • Receiving a lower grade than desired due to drug use
  • Not feeling good physically
  • Spending or losing too much money
  • Being injured or injuring someone else while under the influence
  • Damaging own or other’s property while on drugs
  • Losing a loved one due to drug use
  • Getting into legal trouble
  • Continuing to use the drug of choice, despite trying to stop

As it pertains to alcohol use, the NIAAA reports that students can experience negative consequences such as academic issues, health issues, and increased risk of run-ins with police due to engaging in illegal actions while under the influence (driving while intoxicated, vandalism, etc.).

The NIAAA adds that the likelihood of being a victim of assault or sexual assault also increases when drinking, as does the risk of death due to injuries sustained while drinking.

On a positive note, the study published in the Journal of College Student Development also found that three of four drug users (76 percent) had at least a mild interest in engaging in interventions designed to help them overcome their reliance on prescription and/or illicit drugs.

This is good news because many treatment options exist.

Drug and Alcohol Use Treatment Options for College Students

The forms of treatment that can provide the most effective results not only vary by individual, but also by drug of choice.

In the case of problematic alcohol use, the NIAAA suggests that engaging in multiple strategies often provides the best results.

Some of these strategies should target the student individually via educational programs and behavioral interventions. Others should target the student’s environment, with a focus on changing campus-wide and community-based drinking behaviors so as to incite positive change in the students themselves.

If the alcohol use is consistent and/or severe, alcohol withdrawal syndrome can develop when use is stopped. This can induce nausea, vomiting, agitation, headache, insomnia, nightmares, sweating, elevated heart rate, and increased anxiety, according to Medical News Today (MNT).

In some cases, delirium tremens (DTs) can develop. MNT reports that these have the potential of being life-threatening as they involve hallucinations, disorientation, increased body temperature and blood pressure, and sometimes seizures. Therefore, it may be necessary to secure help from medical professionals to safely detox the body from this particular drug.

Treatment for this substance and other drugs also commonly involves engaging in therapy, both one-on-one and in group settings. This helps teach the college student how to effectively avoid triggers while providing ways to cope that don’t involve alcohol or drugs.

Dual-Diagnosis Treatment Options

If other mental health issues exist, a dual-diagnosis treatment center may provide the best possible results.

Psychology Today reports that anxiety is extremely common among college students, afflicting roughly 57 percent of female students and 40 percent of males.

Depression is high in this particular population as well. It affects 33 percent of female students and 27 percent of males to the point where they found it difficult to simply function.

Learning disabilities and ADHD prevalence can often be a concern for college students, too, according to Psychology Today. The college lifestyle can easily exacerbate these issues, with many students struggling to engage in healthy eating, drinking, and sleeping behaviors.

Thus, handling these additional issues along with the drug and/or alcohol use can increase the student’s likelihood of an effective recovery.

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