Substance Abuse in College Students: The Complete Guide

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College is supposed to be a time of learning, but also adventures and new experiences. For many young people, it’s the first time they’re on their own, and without the structure of their childhood home and family life, they may be enticed to experiment with alcohol and drugs. Hence the problem of substance abuse in college students.

Unfortunately, experimentation can lead to college students developing unhealthy habits, which include the use of substances and extensive drinking patterns. While it can be alarming to hear, the reality is substance abuse and binge drinking are significant problems on college campuses around the country. Drugs in colleges have caused substance abuse and alcoholism to be one of the most prevalent health issues on college campuses.

You’ll often hear news stories about college students unintentionally dying because of alcohol poisoning, drug overdoses, or doing dangerous acts, such as driving, while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Too often alcohol abuse in college students or drug use are seen as typical college kid behavior.

Brushing possible substance abuse issues under the rug can lead to short and long-term consequences that may be difficult to escape from, ranging from full-blown addiction to academic and legal consequences. Avenues Recovery is here to give you an overview of what substance abuse on college campuses entails.

Why is There a Problem of Substance Abuse in College Students?

Alcohol and drug use have become a normalized part of the “college experience” on college campuses across the country. Because of this widespread mentality, college students on drugs often do not even stop to consider the potential harm that substance abuse can have on them. Many factors contribute to the high statistics of drug use in college students.

Peer Pressure 

At the college scene, students want to impress others and gain acceptance from their peers. Peer pressure is one of the main reasons why alcohol abuse in college students is so prevalent. Students may feel more inclined to use alcohol and substances to fit in with others even if they originally would not have been on drugs.

Fraternity/Sorority memberships 

Substance abuse in college students is more common among people who are part of fraternities or sororities. In a Harvard Study, it was reported that four out of five members of fraternities or sororities binge drink. Peer pressure is felt at greater levels when one is living with a group and has to be like the others. Additionally, many fraternity/sorority college groups require hazing to join the group, which almost always requires some sort of drug or alcohol use. 

Academic Pressure and Low Academic Performance

College students may experience high amounts of college work that is too hard for them to handle. Drugs in colleges are used as a form of releasing stress. Students who are not performing well academically may use substances and alcohol as a means to feel good about themselves and bring them out of their frustration in their academics. 

Additional Factors that Contribute to Drug Abuse in College Students:

The are many factors that can lead a college student to abusing drugs, these include:

  • The freedom of being on their own for the first time
  • The ease and availability of obtaining drugs and alcohol on college campuses
  • The peer pressure of other students around them are doing it
  • Curiosity
  • Needing to relax when they are worried about academics or social issues
  • Allowing them to be more fun or have more fun

The Facts - Alcohol Abuse in College Students

One of the most common types of substance abuse seen among college kids is binge drinking. In a survey conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) of college drinking statistics from 2021 [1], 49.3% of college students consumed alcohol in the past month. The following are facts and statistics about binge drinking according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The NIAAA defines binge drinking as any alcohol consumption that brings someone’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.088 or above. This usually occurs when men have five or more drinks in two hours, or women have four or more in that period.

What is Binge Drinking?

1 in 6 U.S. adults binges drinks four times a month.

Binge drinking is most common among young adults from 18 to 34 years old, and men are twice as likely to binge drink than women.

People younger than 21 who report drinking alcohol also say they tend to binge drink.

Who Binge Drinks?

In a 2018 survey from the NIH National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 28% of college students said they’d engaged in binge drinking in the past two weeks, as compared to 25% of non-college respondents. The good news is, those numbers are down from 32% and 28.77% respectively, however, there is still much work to do.

How About College Students?

According to a 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 86.4% of people 18 and older said they’d had alcohol at some point in their life, and 56% said they’d had alcohol in the past month.

College Alcohol Abuse Consequences

Alcohol abuse in college students can lead to a lot of harm. When you know about the potential effects ahead of hand, it is easier for you not to get involved in binge drinking. These knock off effects include:

Alcohol Deaths

According to the NIH, 1,519 college students aged 18 to 24 die from unintentional injuries related to alcohol use each year, including vehicle crashes

Alcohol Assaults

696,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking alcohol, and 97,000 students report an experience of alcohol-related date rape or sexual assault.

Alcohol Abuse disorder

Around 8.1% of college students aged 18 through 22 meet the diagnostic criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

Effect on Grades

An estimated 1 in 4 college students see negative effects on their academics related to alcohol use, including lower grades and missing class.

College Students and Drugs

Although alcohol use is very prevalent amongst college students, it’s not just alcohol abuse that’s problematic on college campuses - other substances are abused as well. Statistics for drug use in college students for the year 2022 were quite high. Below is some information about the rates of college students on drugs.


One such drug is Adderall, which is a stimulant ADHD medication often dubbed a “study drug” by college students.

A study published by the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry showed that the use of Adderall, primarily without a prescription, is a growing problem among young adults. Drugs like Adderall can create a euphoric high, especially when large amounts are used. They can also help students focus and stay awake for long periods.

Unfortunately, there are serious potential side effects including the possibility of heart attack, stroke, and mental health problems like the development of depression or symptoms of anxiety.

A six-year study recently released showed the following:

  • Non-medical use of Adderall increased by 67% from 2006 to 2011
  • Emergency room visits went up 156% during this time
  • 60% of nonmedical Adderall use was among 18-to-25-year-olds.


Along with alcohol and stimulants like Adderall, around 36% of college students said they used marijuana in 2013, which was up significantly from 2006. The amount of cannabis use is rising with each successive year despite the vast consequences it can have on a person. Marijuana use can affect one’s learning memory and affect college students’ academic performance. 


Cocaine has also become an increasingly popular drug used in colleges. In a study including 1,253 college students [2], over 20% of the students attested that they had opportunities to use cocaine over the past year in the college atmosphere. 


The Opioid crisis is quite widespread and has a foothold on college campuses as well. Unfortunately, out of all age groups, college students who abuse opioids are the least likely to seek treatment.  


MDMA as well as other psychedelic and hallucinogenic drugs have increased in popularity over recent years, many are curious to experience the effects of psychedelic drugs.

Other Drugs Common in College Campuses Include:

  • Benzodiazepines such as Xanax
  • Synthetic drugs such as synthetic marijuana, and Opioid pain medications like oxycodone and hydrocodone

How are Drugs Abused by College Students?

Substance abuse on college campuses has taken on many forms. Besides for the regular way of taking drugs, microdosing and prescription drugs have become very common on college campuses. 


Microdosing is when individuals take small amounts of substances to receive the enjoyable effects of the drug while minimizing the undesirable side effects. This form of substance abuse among college students can be harmful and can lead to a larger use of drugs in the future.

Prescription Drugs

In recent times, drugs in colleges have also appeared in the form of prescription drugs. There has become an increased social acceptance of prescription stimulants. Since these drugs are prescribed, they are easier to obtain by college students and provide students with the euphoric feelings they desire. Nevertheless, prescription drugs are harmful when taken in large doses. 

The Effects of Substance Abuse in College Students

Substance abuse and alcohol abuse in college students can have many consequences in college. College students who engage in drugs are more likely to spend fewer hours studying and miss more class time. This almost always leads to lower GPAs. Many college students who abuse drugs and alcohol end up not graduating or are unemployed after graduation.

Warning Signs of Addiction in College Students

Knowing the potential warning signs of alcohol abuse can be helpful if you’re a parent or college student who is worried about yourself.

Some of the warning signs that the use of drugs or alcohol could be spiraling into something problematic include:

  • Drinking more than intended regularly—for example, setting a limit of one or two drinks and consistently going over that
  • Developing tolerance and needing larger amounts of drugs or alcohol to get the same effects
  • Blacking out
  • Doing things that are dangerous while under the influence such as sex or driving
  • Becoming sick after drinking
  • Spending significant or increasing amounts of time dealing with the effects of drinking, such as dealing with a hangover
  • Concern from friends or family
  • Putting aside other priorities to instead drink or use drugs
  • Attempting to cut down on drugs or alcohol unsuccessfully
  • Legal problems like underage drinking arrests or DUI related to substance abuse
  • Problems in school related to drinking
  • Drinking as a coping mechanism or to cope with certain unpleasant feelings

What to do if you are Struggling With Drugs in College?

Too often when you’re in college, and you notice you could have a problem with drugs or alcohol you may try to minimize it or pretend everyone else is in the same boat.

This can lead to more and more substance-related consequences. If you think you may have a problem, chances are you should seek help and support.

The following are steps to take:

  • Assess whether or not you have a problem and if so the nature of your problem. Not all substance use disorders are the same in severity and not all require the same treatment approach.
  • Talk openly and honestly with your family or trusted loved ones. They may be able to provide you with social support as you decide the best next steps for you.
  • Contact a professional. Your college campus will likely have health care or mental health providers who can help you choose the next steps. If you have a primary care doctor, they can also put you in contact with someone who can help you figure out what’s next. Many times, substance abuse is related to mental health and is a co-occurring disorder. For example, you may be self-medicating to deal with symptoms of depression or anxiety. If this could be the case, speaking with a counselor can help you find other coping mechanisms.

Treatment Options for Addiction as a College Student

There are a wide variety of treatment options available if you are suffering from substance abuse as a college student.

There are so many in fact that it can be challenging to know where to start.

Your campus medical center may also provide mental health services and counseling.

Addiction treatment you may want to consider:

  • Inpatient Rehab: Typically, an inpatient rehab program is best suited for someone with a serious problem with drugs or alcohol who may have tried other treatment options before and relapsed.
  • Outpatient Rehab: Outpatient rehab programs offer more flexibility than inpatient rehab, and you can continue going to school and doing other activities while you receive treatment.
  • 12-Step Groups: 12-step groups are like support groups where you can come together with other people who have struggled with drugs or alcohol. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are 12-step programs and meetings are held daily throughout the country, making this a very accessible option that you can work in with your school schedule.
  • Other Recovery Groups: 12-step program, and other support groups such as SMART Recovery, (Self Management and Recovery Training.)
  • Hotlines and Resources: There are national hotlines and resources available to college students who could be dealing with substance abuse or mental health issues.

These include:

  1. SAMHSA National Hotline for information on addiction and free referral services: 1-800-662-HELP
  2. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America has a hotline for parents: 1-855-DRUG-FREE
  3. The National Poison Control Center: 1-800-222-1222
  4. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK
  5. The National Mental Health Association: 1-800-969-6642
  6. Al-Anon and Al-Ateen Crisis Line: 1-800-356-9996
  • Another fantastic resource for anyone looking to learn more about substance abuse in college is “The Addicted Lawyer” by Brian Cuban. 

Avenues Recovery is Here to Help College Students on Drugs

If you are a college student struggling with substance abuse, you aren’t alone, and it’s important to realize help is available in many forms. At Avenues Recovery, we offer a variety of treatment programs to help you come out of your addiction. Our staff is here for you as you start your path to recovery. Be sure to contact us with any questions you may have and free yourself from addiction today.





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