Updated for 2021: College Substance Abuse Statistics, Facts, & Recovery – The Complete Guide

Written by: Shlomo Hoffman
Last Updated: May 15, 2023

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 experiment.

Unfortunately, that experimentation can lead to not-so-healthy habits including the use of substances, and unhealthy 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.

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You’ll often hear news stories about college students unintentionally dying because of alcohol poisoning, drug overdoses, or doing things that are dangerous while under the influence including driving.

Too often red flags of substance abuse 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.

The Facts—Alcohol Use on College Campuses

Alcohol-fueled parties are seen as a right of passage on campuses around the United States.

One of the most common types of substance abuse seen among college kids is binge drinking. The following are facts and statistics about binge drinking according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The National Institute on alcohol abuse and Alcoholism 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 of time.
What is binge drinking?

1 in 6 U.S. adults binge drinks four times a month.
Binge drinking is most common young adults from 18 to 34 years old, and men are twice as likely to being 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.
How common is drinking?

College alcohol abuse consequences

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 “Study Drugs”

It’s not just alcohol abuse that’s problematic on college campuses—other substances are abused as well. 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. Other drugs of abuse on college campuses are:

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

Why Do College Students Abuse Substances?

There are certain reasons that college students may be more likely than people in other age groups to use and also abuse substances. These can include:

  • The freedom of being on their own for the first time
  • The ease and availability of obtaining drugs and alcohol on college campuses
  • Because others around them are doing it
  • Curiosity
  • Students may do it to relax when they are worried about academics or social issues
  • Some people may do it because they feel like it allows them to be more fun or have more fun

Substance Abuse Warning Signs

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

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 If You Have a Problem?

Too often when you’re in college, and you notice you could have a problem with drugs or alcohol you may try and 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. 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.

Addiction Treatment Options

There are a wide variety of treatment options available if you do have a problem with drugs or alcohol.

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

A good beginning point is to use the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s tool to search for facilities near you.

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

Other treatment options include:

  • 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 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: If you don’t prefer a 12-step program, there are also support groups such as SMART Recovery, which stands for 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:

Another fantastic resource for anyone looking to learn more about substance abuse in college is “The Addicted Lawyer” by Brian Cuban

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.

Since joining the Avenues Recovery content team, Shlomo has become a thought leader in the addiction field. His popular addiction podcast "Rubber Bands" is a must listen for anyone involved in Substance abuse treatment. He is a Seinfeld junkie, a recovering Twitter fanatic, and a sports expert. He enjoys milk shakes and beautiful views from rooftops.

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