Research Studies: Substance Abuse Among College Students
Research Studies: Substance Abuse Among College Students
Unfortunately, sometimes that newfound freedom leads them down the wrong path. Nearly all college students will be exposed to college partying, which includes exposure to drugs and alcohol. College and drinking have gone hand-in-hand for decades. In fact, it is estimated that 60% of college students have used alcohol in the last 30 days, and nearly two-thirds engaged in binge drinking in that period. Besides alcohol abuse though, addiction to illegal and prescription drugs is on the rise on college campuses as well. Overall, college students make up one of the biggest groups of drug abusers in the country.

Students just starting college are at the highest risk for drug or alcohol abuse. For many, it is the first time away from home and there is a lot of stress and anxiety about fitting in. Alcohol seems to make socializing easier and more fun, and it is very accessible. Obviously, not every student who engages in drug or alcohol use in college will become addicted, but drinking or using to fit in and have fun can lead to addiction.


College students is one of the highest ranking demographic groups for alcohol abuse.


If you are a college student, or will soon be, the goal of this guide is not to persuade you to avoid drinking or using, or other people who do. That simply wouldn’t be a realistic thing to attempt. The purpose is to educate you about drugs and alcohol, addiction and other risks. The hope is that when you encounter drugs or alcohol on campus, you are armed with enough information to make the choices that are right for you.

Substances on Campus – A History

The availability and popularity of substances used by college students is ever-changing. There were times in history that dangerous substances like cocaine and opium were legal and sold freely, and there were other times that substances that are now legal were prohibited – alcohol and marijuana. Research and technology have allowed Americans insight into the effects and dangers of substance abuse, so the general consensus on just how damaging substance can be has changed as well.

College campuses have long been the base point for drug use in the U.S., as many new substances reach campuses long before they reach the general public and the dangers are known.

Every decade has seen a different assortment of drugs become popular on campus. In the 1950s, young people who embraced the counterculture, known as Beatniks, introduced marijuana to college campuses. This is a trend that has endured – currently 36% of college students smoke marijuana, that is more than ever before. The 1960s college students took drug experimentation to new levels as psychoactive drugs like mushrooms and LSD became popular on campuses. In the 80s, cocaine ruled campuses across all demographics from straight-A students to athletes to social outcasts.

In the 2000s, there was an upsurge in the use and abuse of prescription pills, including amphetamines like Adderall and Ritalin, and narcotic pain killers like OxyContin. Amphetamine use skyrocketed, almost doubling among college students between 2008 and 2013, and the use of pain killers also rose. Currently, over 25% of male college students, and 19% of female students use illicit drugs other than alcohol and marijuana. Those numbers are up from 1990, when only 15% of college students used illicit drugs.

The current generation of college students is incorporating the use and abuse of substances into their lives more and more frequently. New substances continue to appear on college campuses at a rapid rate. In 2014, over a quarter of college age students reported that they had used an illicit drug in the last 30 days, the highest rate since 2002.


More than 23 percent of college students meet the medical definition of substance abuse or dependence.


With the increase in substance abuse on campus comes a greater chance of addiction. More students than ever meet the criteria of substance use disorders. Binge drinking is up to 44% of college students, from 23% in 1993, causing ER visits, car accidents and other injuries, and deaths related to alcohol to also rise steeply.

Reasons College Students Abuse Substances

Many students arrive at college already having had some sort of experience with alcohol or drugs. However, some things inherent to college life can exacerbate the problem – unstructured time, inconsistent enforcement of underage drinking laws, reduced interactions with parents and other adults, and the sheer availability of alcohol and drugs.


College students have higher binge-drinking rates and a higher incidence of driving under the influence of alcohol than their non-college peers.


The first 6 weeks of college are the most vulnerable time for heavy drinking and alcohol-related consequences because of student expectations and social pressures at the start of the academic year. Factors related to specific college settings also play a part in why students drink. Students who attend schools with prominent athletic programs and a strong Greek presence drink more than students whose schools don’t have them. A student’s living arrangement can also influence a student’s decision whether or not to use drugs or alcohol. The college drinking rate is highest among students living in fraternities and sororities, and lowest among students who commute to school and live with their families.

Although the specific reasons that students drink or use drugs can be varied, there are some reasons that come up time and time again. While any one reason may lead some students to use or abuse substances, many students (especially those who have just started college) experience two or more of them at a time, making use more appealing and abuse more likely.

Here are the most common reasons that college students abuse drugs and alcohol:

Increased Freedom

Freshmen are especially at risk because they may be experiencing increased freedom, being away from home, for the first time. With the influence of parents or other adults, students will find it much easier to partake in drugs and alcohol. They are also able to make decisions about where they go, including going to parties and bars, without being accountable to anyone.

Unstructured Time

Beginning college can be a very busy time for students. However, much of the time is unstructured. Especially for students who have lots of downtime in their class schedules, and those who don’t have a job while attending school. Those unstructured hours leave holes in students’ days and nights for drinking or using drugs.

Peer Pressure

There is a strong need in college students to fit in, and drugs (especially alcohol) lower social inhibitions and make socializing easier. College students who are surrounded by other people experimenting with recreational and performance-enhancing drugs are more likely to try these substances for themselves.

Academic Pressure

There is an increase in the use of stimulants like Adderall among college students, who use them to be able to study longer and be more focused. Whether students use drugs to “help” them study, or as an escape from school work, pressure to do well academically increases the risk of substance abuse.


With school, a social life, and perhaps a job to balance, students can feel a lot of stress and anxiety, which can lead to substance abuse as a means of self-medication.


The college years for many are a time of experimentation and trying new things. Unfortunately, this may include drug and alcohol use. They may have been curious about drugs and alcohol prior to college, but now with no parental input, they are free to give in to their curiosity.


There is no question that drugs and alcohol are rampant on campus, often available to students for free. Parties and college bars do not always enforce the underage drinking laws, making it even easier for younger students to drink.

Greek Life

Students who are involved in fraternities or sororities are 26% more likely to binge drink than other students, according to the U.S. Department of Education. So while these organizations may seem like a good idea to students, they may also lead to the negative consequences of alcohol abuse and addiction.

Feelings of Inadequacy

College students may use or drink to overcome feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, or shyness. Alcohol especially, is used to increase confidence and decrease inhibitions.

Most Common Drugs Found on Campus


Alcohol is, by far, the most used substance on college campuses, with nearly 80% of students partaking. It is also the substance that causes the most problems for students, faculty, and staff on campus. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCAAD), 95% of violence on college campuses is alcohol related.

Binge drinking is becoming a big problem on campus, half of the college student who drink alcohol, also binge drink. Binge drinking is defined as drinking heavily over a short period of time with the sole intention of becoming intoxicated. For men that means five or more drinks in a row, and for women, it’s four.

Alcohol is also typically used in hazing – any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them regardless of a person’s willingness to participate. Hazing accidents that result in injury or death are nearly always alcohol-related.

The next problem has become quite trendy and is popular on college campuses, mixing alcohol with energy drinks. Doing so can be harmful, and even fatal.

Why Do People Drink Alcohol?

Quite often, alcohol is used by college students because of their need to fit in. It lowers inhibitions and eases the stress that college students feel. Sometimes alcohol is used to numb or escape negative feelings – the loss of a relationship, doing poorly in or failing a class, loneliness, depression. People tend to turn to alcohol rather than other drugs because it is socially acceptable to drink.

What Are the Risks of Alcohol Abuse?

Drinking alcohol excessively can cause something as minor as a hangover, or it can lead to death. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about a quarter of college students report suffering academic consequences due to their drinking, including missing class, doing poorly on assignments and exams, receiving lower grades, and failing classes.


The NIH also reports that over 1,800 college students (between the ages of 18-24) die every year from alcohol-related injuries and accidents. Excessive drinking can also lead to other serious consequences.

The more students drink, the more likely it is they will experience negative consequences, such as:


Unprotected Sex As a result of one night of excessive drinking, approximately 13% of college students reported having unprotected sex.
Driving Under the Influence Each year, more than 3.3 million students ages 18-24 drive under the influence of alcohol.
Assault Every year, 690,000 students ages 18 to 24 are assaulted by another student who is under the influence of alcohol.
Sexual Abuse Each year, 97,000 college students are victims of alcohol-related date rape or sexual abuse.
Injuries Approximately 599,000 college students sustain alcohol-related injuries each year.


Alcohol-Related Hazing

Hazing is a long-lived tradition on campus, especially within the Greek community and athletic teams. The extreme nature of hazing today is not at all like it was fifty to one hundred years ago. These days, it includes behaviors that are abusive, dangerous, and sometimes illegal; alcohol plays a major role in those behaviors. The number of deaths due to hazing continues to increase each year, and it is estimated that up to 82% are alcohol-related.

Alcohol and Energy Drinks

The popularity of energy drinks has grown enormously in the last five years. The drinks are designed to boost a person’s energy with caffeine, herbal extracts, B vitamins, amino acids and sugar. It is common to see students on campus drinking energy drinks throughout the day. Typically, those who drink them have one to give them the energy that they need to make it through the day. However, when they are out at a party, bar, or other social setting with alcohol, they are likely to consume up to three energy drinks mixed with alcohol.


Mixing energy drinks with alcohol is far more dangerous that drinking either by itself.


The caffeine in an energy drink is a stimulant that raises the heart rate. Conversely, alcohol is a depressant that slows the heart rate. When they are combined, it sends mixed signals to the body, which can cause heart-related problems, difficulty with motor skills and speaking, confusion and exhaustion. Because the caffeine masks the effect of the alcohol, people drinking a combination are more likely to get behind the wheel than those just drinking alcohol. They are also three times more likely to binge drink.


Known as the “study drug,” Adderall, as well as other stimulants, are becoming more commonplace on campuses. Students use these types of drugs to be more alert while studying. Adderall is a prescription drug prescribed for patients suffering with ADHD. However, one in five college students admit to using Adderall without a prescription to aid their studying.

Why Students Like Adderall

Some college students simply like Adderall for the high they feel when they take it. However, most students who take Adderall without it being prescribed, don’t take it for that reason. They take it because it gives them a heightened sensation of motivation, concentration and focus, which is helpful when cramming for exams. It eliminates distractions and helps the students stay focused.

Risks of Adderall

The abuse of Adderall is a serious problem on college campuses. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that nearly 12% of people ages 12 to 25 admitted to using prescription medication for non-medical reasons, and that college students ages 18 to 22 were twice as likely to abuse Adderall as those the same age not in college.

When students take Adderall without an ADHD diagnosis, they can quickly become addicted to and physically dependent on the drug.


They are also at a higher risk for the following side effects:

  • Low blood pressure

  • Dry mouth

  • Depression

  • Mood swings

  • Headaches

  • Loss of appetite

  • Irritability

  • Insomnia



Marijuana is quickly becoming legalized in many states, and use on campus reflects that. On some campuses marijuana use is even higher than alcohol use. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that as of 2012, over 1 million Americans are medical marijuana users. It’s difficult though, to track the amount of medical marijuana abuse.


More college students use marijuana now than ever before.


What is the Appeal of Marijuana?

Both medical marijuana and marijuana that is smoked recreationally have the same appeal – it can improve mood and lessen pain. Typically, medical marijuana is prescribed for people diagnosed with cancer, AIDS, ADHD, Crohn’s disease, neurogenic pain, migraines, arthritis, or multiple sclerosis.


Even though medical marijuana does have a number of medical benefits, its abuse is increasing amongst college students. Some doctors will prescribe marijuana for very minor complications, so it is easily obtainable for students, and they are likely to share it with their friends.


What are the Risks of Marijuana?

  • Distorted perception

  • Loss of balance and coordination

  • Decreased reaction time

  • Impairments in memory, learning, listening, judgement

  • Rapid heart beat

  • Difficulty thinking and problem solving

  • Anxiety

  • Paranoia


Marijuana use is also linked to poor academic performance, isolation, participation in criminal acts, and can cause a weakened immune system leading to health issues.


Almost 90 percent of students who use marijuana participate in other high-risk activities like heavy drinking, cigarette smoking, and risky sexual behavior.



Ecstasy, the “party drug” which became popular in the 1990’s, has made a comeback on campuses in its purer form, known as MDMA or Molly. This drug is most often abused by teenagers and those in their early twenties.

Most MDMA is smuggled into the U.S. across the Canadian border. It is classified as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, which means it has a great potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. MDMA in its purest form isn’t easy to come by, so there is no way for users to know exactly what is in it. Both ecstasy and molly may be cut with other ingredients, including:

  • Cocaine

  • LSD

  • Heroin

  • Amphetamines

  • Caffeine

  • Rat Poison/li>

Why Do Students Like Ecstasy?

Ecstasy and molly enhance the user’s sense of sight, sound, smell, and touch and promote a feeling of happiness, friendliness, and well-being. Ecstasy and molly are most commonly used at dance clubs and raves where students can take advantage of their heightened senses. Users may also feel euphoric, calm, relaxed, or energetic and they may have increased empathy for others and lowered inhibitions.

Ecstasy and molly interfere with the brain’s pleasure center and dopamine levels, so although the high from the drugs only lasts a few hours, the crash may last for days.

What Are the Risks of Ecstasy Abuse?

Any use of ecstasy is considered abuse due to it being illegal. Overdosing, or taking more than the recreational dose can cause seizures, foaming at the mouth, and a spiked temperature. These can lead to heatstroke or heart issues, both of which can be life-threatening.



OxyContin is the most abused prescription drug in the nation, and the pain-killer has become a drug of choice on campus as well. Every year the number of college student overdoses of OxyContin rises.


Why Does OxyContin Appeal to Students?

The drug is appealing to students because it seems less dangerous than street drugs, and it is easily attainable. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, college students reported that it is easier for them to obtain a pack of addictive painkillers like OxyContin than it is to get their hands on a six-pack of beer. Since the drug is legal, easily attainable and cheap, college students are increasingly taking the drug and becoming addicted.

What Are the Risks of OxyContin Abuse?

Prescription drug overdose deaths continue to increase year after year. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that there were 38,329 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2012 and three out of four of those deaths were caused by pain killers, including OxyContin. College students don’t realize the damaging effects OxyContin can have, or how quickly they can become addicted.


OxyContin abuse may have the following negative effects:

  • Brain damage

  • Increased risk of personal injury

  • Misuse of other drugs

  • Impaired judgment

  • Risky sexual behavior

  • Death


Addiction and Other Risks of Substance Abuse

Addiction doesn’t happen overnight. There is a natural progression from non-use to addiction in those with a Substance Use Disorder. The length of time varies depending on many factors, both genetic and environmental. These are the phases of drug or alcohol use:



This is the period before a person has even tried the substance. There is no issue with staying away from the drug.

Recreational Use

Most commonly associated with social drinking or using; a moderate consumption. During this phase, a person will likely see drinking or using as something natural and to be expected at certain events.

Dependence, or Addiction

At some point, a recreational user crosses the line to dependence (physical or psychological) on a substance after increased use. It is extremely difficult for someone in this phase to walk away from the drug or alcohol without help.


In addition to addiction, there are other risks that come along with substance abuse.

Health Problems

All of the substances mentioned in this guide have detrimental side effects that may lead to some serious health issues. Even the occasional or onetime user can experience health problems as a result, and the longer and more regularly that a user abuses substance, the health risks increase exponentially. As college students who are young and healthy, many users feel like they are immune to such health risks. That just isn’t true. When you use or abuse substances it doesn’t matter how indestructible you feel, your body will be affected.

Legal Issues

The majority of recreational substances are illegal, even alcohol is illegal to those students who are under 21. The risk of arrest for using illegal substances is real. In 2013 there were over 40,000 arrests on college campuses for drug possession alone. That number doesn’t include those arrested for driving under the influence, public intoxication, and assault, which are all common with substance abusers.
Being arrested and have a criminal record is something that will follow you for the rest of your life, so this risk is one to consider before you consider using illegal substances.

Academic Discipline

College students are expected to maintain certain behavioral standards even outside of the classroom. Colleges have different criteria, but it is typical for an incident that involves drugs to result in some kind of negative consequence. In 2013, there were 165,000 cases of disciplinary action related to substance abuse reported in the U.S.
An incident involving drugs can mean a suspension or expulsion for college students.
Academic discipline for drug or alcohol use can cause irreparable damage to a student’s reputation with classmates and college faculty. Depending on the student’s plans for the future, this could definitely be detrimental to his or her career.

Getting Help for Substance Abuse and Addiction

Fortunately, there is good news about college students and addiction. There are many treatment options available to help students suffering from addiction, including: detox, inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, 12-step programs and other support groups. The first step is to recognize that there is a problem and seek help.
At FootPrints Behavioral Health Center, we can help. If you are a college student, or you know a student who is having problems with drugs or alcohol, contact us with your questions. We can guide you through the options, and help you decide which is best for you or your loved one. Recovery from drug and alcohol addiction is possible. Call us today for more information.

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