College Students, Drugs, and Alcohol


College is a time of transition and experimentation for many young people arriving on campus this fall. Most students are living on their own for the first time, finding themselves in new situations, meeting new friends, and making memories that will last a lifetime.

Old enough to drive, vote, join the military, and – at age 21 – drink legally, college students are learning to be adults in a setting where the risks may seem lower.

College can be a time for maturing into adulthood. For many students, it's when they will be exposed to binge drinking and substance abuse, perhaps more than at any other time of their lives. College students don't just drink. Many drink to excess.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH):

  • 58% of full-time college students ages 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the past month.
  • 38% engaged in binge drinking (five or more drinks on a single occasion for men, or 4 or more drinks on an occasion for women) in the past month.
  • 12.5% engaged in heavy alcohol use (binge drinking on five or more days in the past month).

These rates are higher than those for their non-college-attending peers.

How to Tell If You or Someone You Know Has a Problem

Here are some questions to ask yourself if you think you or one of your friends has a problem with alcohol or drugs:

  • Do you drink or smoke to feel more confident or overcome shyness?
  • Is your drinking, smoking, or drug use causing you to have money troubles? Or have you noticed that money is disappearing without explanation?
  • Has drinking or drug use caused you to miss class or get behind on your classwork?
  • Are you depending on “study drugs” more and more, and having to use larger amounts and for longer than intended?
  • Has drinking or drug use interfered with your relationships?
  • Have your grades dropped noticeably since you started drinking or using?
  • Do you notice yourself or a friend drinking or getting high more often?
  • Have you noticed uncharacteristic behavior in yourself or a friend? (For example, a straight-A student suddenly getting in trouble for vandalism or some other crime while they are intoxicated or high.)
  • Do you have blackouts?
  • Do you drink or use drugs early in the morning?
  • Have you ever been in a hospital or received medical treatment because of drinking or using drugs?
  • Do you want to quit or cut down, but are having problems doing it?
  • Are you consistently using the substance, despite knowing that it's causing physical or psychological problems?
  • Have you gotten in trouble for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol?
  • Do you have trouble disposing of all your cans and bottles?
  • Do you find you are less picky about the people you hang out with and the places you go when you are drinking or using drugs?

If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, you may have an alcohol or drug problem. If you answered “Yes” to just one question, you may already have a problem or you may be on the path to having a problem. If you answered “Yes” to more than one question, you should seriously consider seeking help immediately.

While this quiz cannot take the place of medical or psychiatric advice, and is for informational purposes only, it does highlight common warning signs of alcohol or substance abuse.

According to many medical professionals, the most telling signs of substance abuse for college students are academic consequences. Missing class because of a hangover or putting off studying because of drinking indicates a problem. Other signs include drinking in the morning and setting limits but continually failing to stop when you reach those limits.

Here are some statistics to consider:

  • College students make up one of the largest groups of substance abusers in the country.
  • Nearly 2,000 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die annually from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes.
  • 696,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted each year by another student who has been drinking.
  • Every year, approximately 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.
  • Nearly half of sexual assault victims report that they were drinking alcohol at the time of the assault.
  • Roughly 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for having an alcohol-use disorder (AUD).
  • About 1 in 4 college students report academic consequences from drinking, including missing class, falling behind in their courses, doing poorly on papers and tests, and receiving lower grades in general. Statistics show a direct correlation between grades and drug and alcohol use. Students who use more drugs also have worse grades overall.

If you get behind the wheel while drunk – even if you are lucky enough not to get in a car accident – you may still get a ticket for driving under the influence (DUI). A DUI conviction can derail your life.

For example, if you are convicted on drunk driving charges, you could:

  • Lose your scholarship
  • Get kicked off a college sports team
  • Lose campus housing
  • Have difficulty pursuing certain degrees, such as nursing, medicine, or law
  • Be barred from becoming a teacher or getting a government job
  • Be barred from obtaining a job that requires a security clearance
  • Find it that much harder to find a good job, even if you are not seeking a professional license
  • Don't let this happen to you.

Where Does College Drinking and Drug Abuse Happen?

Drinking is a major part of many college social events. Even if you are not a drinker, in these situations you might feel pressured to drink. Or you may be pressured to drink much more than you otherwise would, joining in drinking games or trying to match others drink for drink. You might be served alcoholic drinks without your consent or without knowing the alcoholic content of the drinks.

We've all heard about peer pressure. You may think you won't fall for it, that you know your boundaries. But peer pressure is real. Don't underestimate the powerful need to fit in. Even adults feel it.

Sometimes peer pressure can be subtle, as in situations where “everyone's doing it” or when young people exaggerate their exploits in order to appear cooler than they are.

Social media is also a powerful influencer. A CBS News survey showed that teens who see their peers “partying” on social media are more than three times more likely to try it themselves. They don't want to miss out on the fun.

Sometimes peer pressure can be more explicit. For example, you can be bullied or teased if you don't use drugs or alcohol at a party or event, or if you don't drink or smoke as much as other students. In some fraternities, sororities, or clubs, new members can be pressured to drink as part of the initiation process.

Students get into trouble when they are introduced to new substances and they don't know how it will affect their body chemistry and state of mind. They may not know their limits and when to stop. Once you start to feel drunk or high, your decision-making ability is already impaired.

The numbers don't lie, and they say drugs and alcohol are a widespread problem on campus.

  • Nearly 2 in 5 young adults smoked cigarettes.
  • Almost 57 percent of young adults drank alcohol, and almost 37 percent of them binge drank regularly.
  • An estimated 1.8 percent of college-age people misused pain-relieving drugs.
  • Almost 2.5 million young adults misused opioids.
  • Approximately 24 percent of young adults used illicit drugs.
  • An estimated 5.1 million young adults met the criteria for a substance use disorder.

Alcohol & College Life

While some people think drinking is just a part of college life, it's undeniable that college drinking can cause undesirable and unplanned consequences, affecting not only your life in college, but also your life for years to come.

  • Excessive drinking can impair your ability to make decisions, putting you in unsafe or dangerous situations where you might be injured or vulnerable to assault, sexual assault, or rape.
  • Alcohol can also make individuals more likely to commit these and other crimes. Getting behind the wheel while drunk could lead to car accidents, causing you or someone else a severe injury or even death. If you get lucky and avoid a crash, you might not be able to avoid the police, and you may end up with drunk driving charges.
  • Hangovers can make you miss class, make it hard to study, or keep you from doing your best work.

Watch for the effects of alcohol poisoning and drug overdose. Common signs of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Confusion
  • Slow reflexes
  • Slurred speech
  • Rapid pulse
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Unconsciousness
  • Moist, clammy skin
  • Inability to walk
  • Pale or bluish skin

If the alcohol poisoning is severe, it can lead to:

  • Irregular heart beat
  • Choking from vomiting
  • Decrease in body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Brain damage
  • Seizure
  • Unusual breathing patterns
  • Coma
  • Death

How Can Students Prepare to Deal with College Drinking and Drug Use?

Parents should talk to their kids about college drinking before they go to college and throughout their time there.

A University of Texas at Austin study showed that parents can influence their kids' college drinking even before they go off to college. The study measured students' perceptions of their drinking behavior the last semester of high school and after the first semester of college. Students who believed their parents knew and cared about their drinking habits drank less than those who thought their parents didn't know or care about their alcohol consumption.

Students, if you talk about the challenges of student life before you go to college, you will be that much more prepared once you get there.

But once you are in college, how do you successfully balance school work, the extra stress, and the party atmosphere of college life? Here are some tips:

  • Stay safe. Never drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Don't drink or get high before critical academic events – especially when you have a test or an important class coming up, or when you have to write a paper. The effects of drinking sometimes take 48 hours to wear off. If you are drinking on Friday night or at the football game on Saturday, a hangover could prevent you from being able to study effectively over the weekend.
  • If you have early class times, avoid drinking the night before.
  • To avoid getting “roofied,” don't take drinks from people you don't know. You don't know what's in the drink and how it will affect you.
  • If you are going to an event where you know drinking and drugs will take place, plan ahead for how you will get home. Either agree that someone in your group will be a designated driver or take an Uber, Lyft, taxi, or public transportation.
  • If you do use a rideshare, don't just get into a car without first asking the driver “What's my name?” Follow safety tips for riding safely in a rideshare, including texting a friend where you are going, sitting in the backseat, and avoiding sharing personal information with the driver.

If you think someone is so intoxicated that they are in danger of alcohol poisoning, do something. Don't just leave them to “sleep it off.”

  • Call 911 or a local poison control center for help.
  • Stay with them. Never leave a severely intoxicated person alone.
  • Turn them onto their side to prevent choking in case they vomit.
  • Monitor their breathing levels. If you know CPR, be prepared to use it if necessary.
  • Continually try to revive them if they are passed out.

What Can You Do If Think You or a Friend Has a Drug or Alcohol Problem?

Alcohol and drug abuse are serious issues. If you think you might already be in trouble, and drinking or using drugs too much, there are many ways to get help.

  • Check out campus resources. Examples of campus help include a campus counseling office, a campus medical clinic, or even a trusted professor.
  • Think twice about events you attend. If you're having issues with alcohol or drugs, you may want to avoid going places or getting into situations where people will be drinking or using.
  • Join a community-based support group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • Find hobbies that keep you busy outside of class time – hobbies that don't involve drinking or drug use. Here's a great list of things to do instead of drinking to excess.
  • If you notice a friend struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, encourage them to get help. Don't enable them and help them to continue with destructive habits.
  • Call a national drug helpline to get free help and treatment referrals. Your call is anonymous, and you can talk to trained, compassionate people 24/7 who can help you.
  • Confide in a close friend or family member. Let them know you need support and help.
  • If you've gotten a DUI or gotten in trouble with the law while drinking, seek legal assistance from a qualified DUI defense attorney.
  • If necessary, get further outside help. Treatment centers, inpatient rehab, etc. are there to help you.