Drinking and Drugs on College Campuses

Although excessive drinking on college campuses and drug use among college students isn’t a new topic, recent research suggests that both the number and frequency of young people using drugs and drinking to excess is actually increasing. This is in spite of the fact that education about alcohol awareness and drug abuse is more readily available than ever before on college campuses.

A 2005 report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University shows that half of all students have some form of substance abuse problem, whether it’s binge drinking or using drugs for recreational purposes. Nearly one-quarter of college students met the medical criteria of addiction, which is defined as a “chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” By comparison, only ten percent of the general population is considered to be addicted.


Understanding the Problem

Many parents of college students are surprised to learn how different the social scene on campuses is today. Gone are the days of occasional keg parties and casual pot-smoking — students are now binge drinking much harder forms of alcohol and are experimenting with both prescription and illicit drugs that weren’t available 20 years ago.

Many students begin experimenting with drinking before they leave for college, making them much more comfortable with alcohol once they get to school. This makes it easier for them to increase their intake and branch out into other types of alcohol. Since the start of college is usually the first time a young adult is away from the watchful eyes of their parents, students are easily caught up in the culture of drinking and peer pressure, which is made worse by a lack of parental role models. In high school, for example, a student might have a beer or two with their classmates, but, knowing they are going home to their parents, would stop drinking before reaching the point of over-indulging. Once a student is living on their own, however, they lose the built-in rules that previously regulated their behavior. The freedom that young adults experience for the first time often makes it difficult for them to make wise decisions about substance abuse.

The reasons that so many college students do drugs and drink to excess are varied. In many cases, young people drink simply because so many of their peers are doing so as well. A University of Minnesota report found that both males and females use alcohol to make themselves feel sexier and uninhibited, making it easier to meet members of the opposite sex.

In that same Minnesota report, more than 50 percent of students surveyed indicated that the following were also reasons that they drank:

  • It helps breaks the ice with new peers and makes it easier to meet people.
  • It makes activities more fun and helps them fully take part in social settings.
  • Alcohol with friends or alone beats the boredom of hanging out while sober.
  • It increase a person’s outgoingness and helps them beat shyness.

For some young people who have spent the past several years focused on getting into college and dealing with the family pressure that comes with the process, finding easy ways to relax is a lost art. This seems especially true among competitive young women who find themselves with too much free time after filling their high school days with structured activities. Many students see over-indulging in alcohol and drugs as a well-earned right after years of buckling down and studying hard for college admission.


Accessibility to Drugs and Alcohol

College students are notoriously broke — the cost of tuition, food and books leaves little extra money in their pockets. Many students rely on their parents for extra spending cash, or they take on a part-time job. Alcohol, especially when bought with a group, is a relatively cheap form of entertainment compared to traveling or going to movies or concerts. College towns are also full of bars and restaurants that offer drink specials or even free drinks for women. This makes it that much harder to say no when the alcohol is so abundant and readily accessible. Many drugs, likewise, can be purchased in small quantities without a large price tag.

Drinking and Drugs on College Campuses: Definitions

If you suspect that your college-aged son or daughter is struggling with addiction, it’s important to understand the drug and alcohol lingo and the situations they may find themselves in. Here’s a brief overview of some modern terms:

Binge Drinking


Generally speaking, binging refers to drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short time period. For men, this means at least five drinks in a row. For women, binge drinking means having four or more drinks. Binge drinking can occur in any age group but is most common in college-aged students. Someone who binges does so with the intent of getting drunk, not of being social or enjoying the taste of the drink. Binge drinking on college campuses is seen as a rite of passage to be included in some group settings, both formal and informal. Statistics for binge drinking on college campuses show that 40 percent of students binge, and the numbers don’t seem to be going down.

Adderall, a.k.a. “The Study Drug”

Although Adderall, sometimes known as Addy, is a legitimate treatment for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), this prescription drug is popular among college students who need help focusing on their schoolwork. It’s often used when a student needs to pull an all-nighter or cram for an exam because it improves concentration. But because Adderall combines the strong medications of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, it should only be used under the guidance of a prescribing physician. Despite the warnings and potential side effects of sleeplessness and headaches, Adderall is used by at least one in five college students.

Energy Drinks and Alcohol


Just as energy drinks have become a popular stimulant for people who need a boost of caffeine, they’re also a popular combination with alcohol. According to the CDC, more than 30 percent of 18-24 year olds mix energy drinks and alcohol on a regular basis.

The high amount of caffeine in energy drinks makes this a dangerous combination. Because the caffeine gives the drinker an energy boost, they don’t immediately feel the effects of the alcohol until they’ve consumed too much. That’s why people who mix their alcohol with energy drinks are three times more likely to binge drink. The caffeine also produces side effects, like speech difficulties and heart problems that can be masked by the alcohol, putting the consumer in physical danger.

OxyContin, a.k.a. Oxy


Although prescribed for legitimate pain relief, OxyContin is one of the most abused drugs in the United States. Like with Adderall, college students have the misconception that Oxy is safer than illegal drugs since it’s a prescription medication, but its strong side effects and addictive qualities make it safe only when used under the guidance of a physician. OxyContin also interacts with other medications and should be used carefully.
Students who use Oxy do so because it’s inexpensive and produces alcohol-like feelings, often without next-morning hangovers typical of alcohol drinking. But Oxy overdoses are on the rise in the United States and can cause both brain damage and death.


If your son or daughter is interested in joining a fraternity or sorority, be warned that hazing, a ritual that often lasts for days if not a full week, is based around making sure that the potential new members “qualify” for acceptance in the Greek life. While some Greek organizations are supportive, alcohol-free environments, many other groups use hazing rituals that include forcing the new members to drink copious amounts of alcohol and then perform stunts, like running around in circles or climbing a tree.

The exact details of the hazing rituals are unknown to the new member until it’s too late. Hazing usually doesn’t happen until the new member has already acclimated into the new group, which makes them want to please the older members of the group. The implication is that failing the hazing will not only mean you can’t be a full member of the organization, but that you’re also letting down your brothers or sisters. Most new members will push themselves to complete their assignment, which might be to drink an entire six-pack of beer or four whiskey shots and then run at least a mile. The lucky ones throw up. But some pledges end up hospitalized with serious, long-term problems.


Consider the case of Dave Bogenberger, a Northern Illinois University student who was found dead at his fraternity house in November 2012. His autopsy report said he went into cardiac arrhythmia, which was brought on by the amount of alcohol he consumed during his hazing.

Individuals who participate in other groups, such as athletic teams, interest clubs and even student government, have been known to haze, although these hazing rituals tend to be much milder. If your college student is interested in joining a Greek organization or other club, check with the university’s student affairs office to find out about the history of hazing within the group and the consequences that are faced by those who haze. Also, talk to your child about what to do if they encounter dangerous hazing.

Students and Cold Medicine

A recent trend among college students is to get high by drinking large amounts of over-the-counter cold medicine — sometimes entire bottles. Access to this type of medication is easier than buying illicit drugs, and the products are available without a visit to the doctor, but they produce the same euphoric effects as stronger drugs. More than a half-million young adults reported using cold medicine to get high in 2006 the last year that figures were available.

Because the products are sold over-the-counter, young people underestimate the harmful effects. Students who misuse cold medicine can experience seizures and brain damage. Even a one-time overdose can kill the user.

Illegal Drugs

Like alcohol use, illegal drug use among college students is also on the rise. In recent decades, daily marijuana use has doubled and use of illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine has increased by 50 percent. A recent survey by the University of Michigan found that drug abuse on college campuses has reached an all-time high, with more than half of the full-time students surveyed admitting to drug use.


Signs of Abuse

It can be difficult to notice the signs of alcohol or drug abuse in college students. Since young adults at this stage in their lives may not have daily schedules and sleeping habits to adhere to, some of the obvious signs, like oversleeping and insomnia, can be missed. Add to that the fact that many students go away to school and only see their immediate family during holiday breaks, and it’s easy to understand how parents may not be aware of drug or alcohol abuse. Still, many college students will start to exhibit telltale signs that their substance abuse is getting out of hand.

Common personality or lifestyle changes that can indicate alcohol and drug use that is becoming a problem for a college student may include:

  • Skipping class or missing assignment deadlines
  • Losing interest in activities that were previously enjoyable
  • Spending less time on sober activities and becoming preoccupied with events that focus on drugs and drinking
  • Acting “spacey” or out of it
  • Lacking motivation to complete their degree and no longer focusing on long-term goals
  • Dropping out of school or quitting a job or internship
  • Engaging in risky behavior or not being concerned with that behavior’s consequences
  • Getting in legal trouble while under the influence of drugs or alcohol

The physical signs of drug or alcohol dependency may be easier to spot. These signs include:

  • Memory lapses
  • Poor hygiene
  • Seizures without a medical explanation
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Frequent nosebleeds (this occurs in individuals who snort drugs such as cocaine)
  • Weight changes
  • Scabs or bruises, especially on the inner arms, indicating injection sites
  • Tremors
  • Unexplained depression or anxiety, especially during times when access to alcohol and drugs is limited

Risk Factors

Some people can drink casually throughout their lives without developing alcoholism, while other people start to become dependent after experimenting just a few times. Scientists have discovered several risk factors, including genetics, that can increase a person’s chances of addiction.


These factors include:

  • Age. Younger people are more likely to become dependent on drugs and alcohol, in part because they have a lower tolerance than older adults and because they are more likely to overindulge.
  • Genetics. Family history of addiction can be passed through DNA. Children of drug- or alcohol-dependent parents are more likely to have addiction problems than children of parents who don’t abuse substances.
  • Anxiety and depression. Alcohol and drugs are often used as an escape mechanism from daily stress, such as exams and college projects. Likewise, the loneliness and isolation that some students experience during their college years can also contribute to substance abuse.
  • Gender. While males are more likely to have addiction problems, women may become addicted to substances faster.
  • Past trauma. Childhood or teenage trauma, especially if it has not been appropriately dealt with through therapy, increases one’s likelihood of abusing drugs and alcohol.
  • Mental health problems. A history of ADHD, clinical depression or post-traumatic stress disorder all contribute to addiction problems.

Consequences of Drug and Alcohol Abuse

The results of drug and alcohol addiction manifest themselves in different ways for different people. Long-term use of harmful substances can lead to poor school performance, academic probation and loss of job opportunities, both during college and post graduation. During the immediate time period of over-using drugs and alcohol, students are more likely to engage in risky behavior or put themselves in dangerous situations.


Some of the immediate negative effects of alcohol and drug use include:

  • Risky sex. More than 10 percent of college students have experienced unprotected sex while being drunk, which can lead to unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
  • Driving under the influence. Poor decision-making while drunk or high contributes to alcohol-related car accidents. More than 3 million young people get behind the wheel of a vehicle while intoxicated. Drunk driving has obvious, violent consequences such as car accidents. However, students should also consider the repercussions of being arrested while driving intoxicated, which can result in jail time and make it more difficult to find a job in certain fields. Some careers are completely closed to people who have a DUI on their record.
  • Sexual abuse and rape. In the general population, 89 percent of sexual assault victims drank alcohol before they were attacked. This number includes victims who may have been exposed to the date rape drug. Among college students, close to 100,000 are raped or sexually abused while drunk each year.
  • Vandalism. About 10 percent of college students who drink to excess admit to damaging property while drunk.

When to Get Help

It’s difficult for most people to recognize when they need help with a substance abuse problem. Since many students develop their dependence while away at school, it may be more difficult for parents and family members to realize the full extent of the problem.

If you suspect that your child or family member has a substance abuse problem, expect to be met with resistance if you confront them about it. Most people will under-exaggerate the amount of drugs or alcohol they use, or they will deny using them altogether. They may become defensive and lash out against anyone who tries to put a stop to their behavior. Remember, your family member is suffering from a disease and needs help to recover. Do not place blame on them or make them feel bad for their behavior, since this will not encourage them to find help. Most people addicted to drugs and alcohol need help to recover, and college students are no different.

Helping your college student beat their addiction before it has irreparable consequences is the best way to create a proactive recovery. It’s never too late to find an appropriate rehab situation, even if the addiction has occurred for years. Keep in mind that many college students are covered under their parents’ health insurance policies, so check yours to see what services are covered. A reputable rehab facility, like 12 Keys Rehab, will work with you to help your college student achieve their goal of chemical independence while also working with insurance and budget limitations.


As a parent or loved one of an addicted person, it can be hard to encourage them to seek help because of the fear of physical symptoms of withdrawal. Rest assured, however, that 12 Keys Rehab has a fully trained staff to help your loved one. In addition to therapy, medication will be used to address physical symptoms.

To get help for a college student addicted to drugs or alcohol, contact 12 Keys 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our facility provides a judgement-free environment with highly trained staff in all aspects of addiction treatment. Staff members are available around-the-clock to support individuals on their path to a healthier lifestyle.

The Addiction Blog