Substance Abuse In College Students: Statistics & Addiction Treatment
Substance abuse is (unfortunately) common among college students and can result in a range of academic, physical, mental, and social problems. One study found that nearly half of participating college students met the criteria for at least one substance use disorder (SUD), while the 2019 Monitoring the Future survey found the highest rates of marijuana and some illicit drug use, particularly amphetamines, cocaine, hallucinogens, and MDMA, among those of typical college age (early to mid-20s).1,2
Alcohol and drug use in college can interfere with your academic performance, decrease the chances of obtaining post-college employment, and cause many additional consequences.1,2 Continue reading to learn more about substance abuse in the college student population, and what you can do to seek help if you or someone you know is struggling with drug use in college.
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Take Our Substance Abuse Self-Assessment
Are you concerned that you, a friend, or a family member who is in college may have a substance abuse problem? Take our free, 5-minute substance abuse self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with substance abuse. The evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of a substance use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.
Reasons and Causes of Substance Abuse Among College Students
College is intended to be an era of self-discovery, unbridled potential complemented by lifelong friendships, independence, and experiencing what the world has to offer. But for tens of thousands of students, the weight of unforgiving expectations placed on them by parents, teachers, other students, society, and even themselves, sometimes worsens in college.
College students are forced to adapt to a new lifestyle, with arguably less structure than that of their childhood, while being pulled in various directions. All these factors coming together can create a perfect storm for substance abuse issues. Alcohol flows quite freely on college campuses, and people sometimes exchange drugs in dorm rooms and classrooms, either as a way to escape from all the stress, or to boost academic performance (at the risk of developing an addiction).
Many reasons contribute to the high prevalence of drug abuse in college students, with some of the most common causes being:1,3,4
- College students often experience high levels of stress related to their academic performance, social life, family concerns, and more, so they may turn to different substances as a way of coping or to manage negative or unpleasant feelings.
- Social reasons. Drinking or drugs are commonly used in social situations; some students use substances to loosen feelings of tension or social anxiety or to help them relax more easily in social situations.
- Family history of substance use disorders. Anyone with family members with drug or alcohol use issues has an increased risk of addiction.
- Beliefs about substance use. Some college students may think it’s acceptable or normal to abuse substances as part of the college experience or due to peer pressure.
- Being a member of a fraternity or sorority. Studies have shown that members of these groups have a much higher rate of binge drinking, substance abuse (alcohol, cannabis, and other drugs), and cigarette smoking.
- Poor academic performance. This can be both a cause and consequence of substance use.
- A time of transition. For many people, college is a transition time between childhood and adulthood and can be the first time in life without parental supervision.
- Easy availability of drugs on college campuses. Many substances tend to be ubiquitous on college campuses, and easy access to drugs or alcohol can lead to an increased risk of substance abuse.
What Drugs Do College Students Abuse Most?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) explains that college students frequently use and abuse alcohol, with many students seeing alcohol use as a ritualistic part of college. However, many students also come to campus with pre-existing drinking habits as well.5
The drugs most commonly abused by college students include:1,2,6
- Marijuana. Past-year and past-month abuse of marijuana are highest among people aged 21-22. Vaping marijuana is highest among people in their early 20’s.
- MDMA (ecstasy), LSD, and other psychedelic or hallucinogenic drugs. These drugs have gained popularity in recent years, with many students using them out of curiosity, to have the overall psychedelic experience, or to escape. Micro-dosing, the act of using small doses of hallucinogens to achieve a slight effect, has also increased among college students in recent years.
- Stimulant medications, such as dextroamphetamine (Adderall), that are often called “study drugs”. Students may use study drugs to help them stay awake or in an effort to enhance their ability to focus and study for exams. Adderall use in college can be very detrimental and eventually lead to dependence or addiction.
- Cocaine. One study showed that more than 20% of college students were exposed to opportunities to use cocaine in the past year.
- Painkillers and opioids. A high percentage of young adults between the ages of 18-25 suffer from prescription painkiller abuse, or prescription opioid abuse, in college; this is also a significant cause of unintentional death and injury among people in this age range.
Does Insurance Cover Rehab for College Students?
Yes, insurance typically covers rehab for college students. Many college students who are under the age of 25 are still eligible to be covered for treatment under their parent’s insurance policy. However, the extent to which your rehab stay will be covered depends on your insurance policy, copay, and deductible. AAC is in-network with many insurance companies. Discover whether your treatment may be fully or partially covered by using our online SSVOB form below.
The Long and Short Term Impacts of Substance Use in College Students
Substance abuse can cause many consequences for college students that are not limited to their academic life. Some of the short- and long-term impacts of drug and alcohol abuse in college students can include:5,7,8
- Decreased academic performance. Substance abuse can lead to a lower GPA, less time spent studying, missing class, getting behind on assignments, dropping out, or being expelled.
- Risky or dangerous behaviors. This can include doing things you normally wouldn’t do, like driving under the influence, being involved in assault (either as a victim or perpetrator), getting into fights, stealing, or engaging in risky sexual behaviors or date rape. Many of these behaviors can be potentially lethal.
- Poor health. You can suffer from many physical health consequences, including hangovers, nausea, injury, negative effects on your immune system, and risk of overdose or death. You may also experience poor mental health, decreased cognitive performance, short-term memory loss, addiction, or increased risk of suicide.
- Social consequences. You can lose friendships and important relationships due to substance use. You may be more socially isolated if you spend much of your time using alcohol or drugs.
What Are Colleges Doing About Drug & Alcohol Abuse?
Many colleges and government institutions are taking action to help prevent or manage substance abuse and drug addiction in students. For example, the Collegiate Recovery Programs (CRPs) or Collegiate Recovery Communities (CRCs) are college-based programs designed to help promote recovery in students through drug- and alcohol-free opportunities to socialize, substance-free housing, crisis support, and more.1
The NIAAA collaborated with college alcohol researchers and staff to develop the College Alcohol Intervention Matrix (CollegeAIM), which is a comprehensive and easy-to-use booklet and website that help colleges identify specific individualized interventions and both prevent and deal with alcohol abuse on campus.9 These interventions can include education and awareness programs, cognitive-behavioral skills educations, motivational approaches, and behavioral interventions offered by healthcare professionals.5
Research has shown that other initiatives can also meet the needs of college students struggling with addiction. These include offering campus-based 12-step or other support meetings such as Students for Recovery, offering substance abuse counseling by trained professionals, providing campus education to reduce the stigma of accessing help, scheduling classes on Fridays to reduce alcohol-related partying on Thursdays, monitoring fraternities and sororities, and having longer opening hours for recreational facilities and libraries.10,11
College and Substance Abuse Statistics
- According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, almost 53% of full-time college students ages 18-22 drank alcohol in the past month.5
- A total of 33% engaged in binge drinking in the past month (meaning 5 or more drinks for males or 4 or more drinks for females on one occasion).5
- Data from the NIAAA states that an estimated 1,519 college students aged 18-24 die due to unintentional alcohol-related injuries, which includes car accidents.5
- The same data explains that an estimated 97,000 students ages 18-24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.5
- One in 4 college students experiences academic problems due to drinking.5
- Approximately 9% of full-time college students met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder (AUD), which is the clinical term for alcohol addiction.5
- In 2016, around 1 in 10 college students reported non-medical use of Adderall in the past 12 months.1
- MDMA use among college students more than doubled from 2004 to 2016.1,7
- The number of people aged 19-28 using illicit drugs increased from 32% in 2006 to 44% in 2019.2
- Around 43% of college students used marijuana in 2018, which represents a 7% increase over the previous 5 years.12
- One study of college student participants in a CRP program found that 87.5% of the CRP alumni had no relapse following graduation.1
- Another study indicates that among 29 nationwide CRPs, the yearly relapse rates were between 0 and 25%, with academic achievement (measured by GPA and graduation rates) being higher than the overall outcomes of the host school.13
Signs to Look Out For and How to Talk About Treatment
Some of the signs of substance abuse in college students can include:14,15
- Skipping classes, declining academic performance, dropping out, or recent disciplinary action.
- Poor personal appearance.
- Avoiding friends or family.
- No longer participating in activities they once enjoyed.
- Lying about drug or alcohol use.
- Spending a lot of time using and recovering from the effects of drugs or drinking.
- Needing to drink or use drugs to relax or have a good time.
- Mood changes, such as being depressed, irritable, or angry.
- Physical or mental problems, like bloodshot eyes, poor concentration, or memory issues.
- Withdrawal symptoms (like headaches, cravings, or depression).
- Continuing substance use despite the negative consequences.
- Legal troubles, like arrests, accidents, or DWIs.
- Using substances in hazardous situations (like while driving).
- Risky behavior while high or drunk, like starting fights or having unprotected sex.
Talking to someone about their substance use may not be easy, especially if they don’t think they have a problem. You can’t force someone to get help, but you can show your concern. You may wish to talk to someone you trust about the problem (such as a professor or counselor) so you can practice the conversation. You can also make a list of resources where they can seek help (like campus counseling centers or off-campus rehabs).
When talking to your friend, explain that you are concerned about their health, wellbeing, and academic performance. Avoid criticizing or blaming them, and back off if they are resistant to hearing you; you can come back to the issue at a later moment. Focus on specifics, such as saying, “You stumbled into our room at 3 a.m., you threw up the whole night, and I am concerned about you.” Then let them know that you are available to talk if they want to. Check back in from time to time — you don’t have to have the conversation all at once, but you may want to give them the list of resources you compiled.15
Seeking help can involve different steps, such as having a consultation with the campus health center, talking to a counselor at your campus counseling center, or seeking treatment at a hospital or rehab center.15 Getting treatment can help prevent the consequences of substance use on your health, academic career, and overall wellbeing.
American Addiction Centers offers customized treatment for people ages 18 and older. If you or someone you love is in college and struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, call our admissions navigators today at . We’ll help you figure out your next best steps.
How Long is Rehab? (Will I Have to Leave School?)
Rehab can vary in length, intensity, and structure depending on whether you decide to attend inpatient or outpatient rehab. Even if you need to leave school to attend rehab, there are always resources to help you during and after the process, such as counseling programs, medical leaves of absence, or transition plans that involve modified programs of study.10 If you are concerned about going to rehab because of a fear that your grades will suffer or that you’ll fall behind in your program, consider what will happen if you don’t get help. Addiction usually gets worse if left untreated, so it’s a sign of strength that you’re willing to take control of your life before things spiral further out of control.16
A typical inpatient stay might last 3 weeks to 90 days, with some programs being longer. Outpatient treatment may also be an option, and you may be able to continue to attend some daytime classes and go to treatment in the evening. Many rehabs can work with you to help you find the best options for your needs.17
Even though it can seem scary or intimidating, know that attending rehab is confidential, so no one needs to know about it (not even your family) if you don’t want them to. Taking steps to get your life under control now can help pave the way for a happier, healthier, and brighter future.
Finding Drug and Alcohol Abuse Treatment for College Students
- Welsh, J. W., Shentu, Y., & Sarvey, D. B. (2019). Substance Use Among College Students. Focus, 17(2), 117–127.
- Schulenberg, J. E., Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., Miech, R. A. & Patrick, M. E. (2020). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975–2019: Volume II, College students and adults ages 19–60. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan.
- Kaiser, A. J., Milich, R., Lynam, D. R., & Charnigo, R. J. (2012). Negative urgency, distress tolerance, and substance abuse among college students. Addictive behaviors, 37(10), 1075–1083.
- Lipari, R., Ahrnsbrak, R., Pemberton, M., & Porter, J. (2017). Risk and Protective Factors and Estimates of Substance Use Initiation: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. CBHSQ Data Review. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). College Drinking.
- Hudgins, J. D., Porter, J. J., Monuteaux, M. C., & Bourgeois, F. T. (2019). Prescription opioid use and misuse among adolescents and young adults in the United States: A national survey study. PLoS medicine, 16(11), e1002922.
- McAlaney, J., Dempsey, R. C., Helmer, S. M., Van Hal, G., Bewick, B. M… & Zeeb, H. (2021). Negative Consequences of Substance Use in European University Students: Results from Project SNIPE. European addiction research, 27(1), 75–82.
- Palmer, R. S., McMahon, T. J., Moreggi, D. I., Rounsaville, B. J., & Ball, S. A. (2012). College Student Drug Use: Patterns, Concerns, Consequences, and Interest in Intervention. Journal of college student development, 53(1), 10.1353/csd.2012.0014.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. CollegeAIM: Overview.
- Perron, B. E., Grahovac, I. D., Uppal, J. S., Granillo, M. T., Shutter, J., & Porter, C. A. (2011). Supporting Students in Recovery on College Campuses: Opportunities for Student Affairs Professionals. Journal of student affairs research and practice, 48(1), 47–64.
- S. Department of Education. (2008). Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention on College Campuses: Model Programs.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). News Release: Marijuana use at historic highs among college-age adults.
- Laudet, A. B., Harris, K., Kimball, T., Winters, K. C., & Moberg, D. P. (2015). Characteristics of students participating in collegiate recovery programs: a national survey. Journal of substance abuse treatment, 51, 38–46.
- University of Rochester: University Counseling Center. The Student Suspected of Substance Abuse/Addiction.
- Campus Drug Prevention. How to Help a Friend.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction: Drug Misuse and Addiction.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition): Types of Treatment Programs