Alcohol Abuse in College Students

Alcohol abuse among college students is one of the most difficult challenges facing educators today. This is primarily because alcohol use in college is viewed as a tradition by many, and even those students who don’t drink simply accept it as part of the college experience. This has made it especially difficult to educate and alert the American public to the real dangers and social problems that alcohol abuse in college students causes. In addition to the fact that alcohol use costs colleges and universities millions of dollars each year and causes a public nuisance, it can also ruin the life of a young adult. Therefore this problem must be understood as the public health issue that it is.

The media, Hollywood and advertising firms around the nation have generally portrayed the issue of drinking in college lightheartedly and often humorously. In some cases it is practically billeted as a rite of passage. However, many students abuse alcohol in college as a result of the real-life pressures of adulthood. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism describes the complex reasons why students turn to alcohol:

“Customs handed down through generations of college drinkers reinforce students’ expectation that alcohol is a necessary ingredient for social success. These beliefs and the expectations they engender exert a powerful influence over students’ behavior toward alcohol.” And; “Students derive their expectations of alcohol from their environment and from each other, as they face the insecurity of establishing themselves in a new social milieu. Environmental and peer influences combine to create a culture of drinking. This culture actively promotes drinking, or passively promotes it, through tolerance, or even tacit approval, of college drinking as a rite of passage.” (1)

In addition to the reasons mentioned above, students sometimes drink because of substance abuse problems developed while in high school, to self-medicate co-occurring conditions like bipolar disorder or PTSD, as a result of a pain management program, or to deal with stress unrelated to college. Whatever the reason might be, alcohol use among college students is alarmingly prevalent. The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that;

“College students had more occasions of heavy drinking, defined as five or more drinks in a row, within the past 30 days than non-college adolescents of the same age (40 percent vs. 35 percent).” And; “19.5 percent of full-time college students, aged 18-22, were considered heavy drinkers compared to 13.0 percent of people in the same age group who were not enrolled full-time in college.” (2)

In her 2007 article in USA Today, Donna Leinwand indicated that the problem was even more severe than previous estimates;

“Nearly half of America’s 5.4 million full-time college students abuse drugs or drink alcohol on binges at least once a month . . .” (3)

Some estimates place the number of students who drink to excess even higher, citing skewed reporting by students who fear academic or legal consequence should they admit to excessive drinking. This is especially true among the large population of college students who are under 21 and cannot legally drink.

Unfortunately, the risks and consequences of alcohol abuse in college are borne not only by the abuser, but by other students, campus educators and administrators, and by the general public. In an interview with Henry Wechsler, a leading advocate of a campaign to eradicate alcohol from college campuses nationwide, Fox News reporter Michael Park quotes the Harvard University educator;

“Binge drinking brings noise, assault, vomit, rapes, all occurring within and near the dormitories. Students who don’t drink are losing sleep, unable to study. And the same goes for those living adjoining to college campuses, who suffer from everything from litter to violence.” (4)

But while these problems might be significant for the public and for non-drinking students, they can be disastrous to those that abuse alcohol. College Drinking Prevention.GOV reports that of college students aged 18-24, there are 1,825 deaths, 599,000 injured students, 696,000 assaults, 97,000 instances of sexual abuse or assault, 400,000 cases of unprotected sex, 3,360,000 instances of drunk driving, and 150,000 reports of alcohol-related health problems EACH YEAR. Additionally, 1.2 to 1.5 percent of students interviewed acknowledged suicide attempts within the prior year related to alcohol or drug use. (5) Unfortunately, many of these injuries and deaths also include victims who were not involved with drinking or drugs.

Prevention has been a major issue for some college campuses, while not a priority at all for others. Prevention measures focus primarily on education in various formats, including orientation programs, special classes, flyers and other literature, and programs – including punitive ones – for offenders. Campus security often focuses heavily on resolving problems related to drinking, costing colleges and universities – and therefore students and parents – millions of dollars every year. Fortunately, some campuses are adopting more aggressive programs aimed more at prevention than enforcement. The Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans reports that;

“Some colleges and universities have broad prevention approaches that combine traditional educational programs with strategies aimed at changing the whole environment on campus and in surrounding communities. This approach recognizes that student behavior is influenced at multiple levels: personal, peer, institutional, community, and public policy.” (6)

But despite these efforts, many educators, students and parents still feel that not enough is being done. And because of the high likelihood of developing alcohol dependence, drug addiction treatment issues need to be addressed with as much intensity as prevention and enforcement.

If you or someone you love is heading down a path that might destroy their education and consequently their careers, the time to act is now. It’s not easy to repair damage done, but it is easy to prevent it. Call the number at the top of your screen now – regardless of what time it is – to speak to an alcoholism expert confidentially. We can get you or your loved one the right treatment, right now – but we can’t do it if you don’t call.


(1) College Drinking Prevention.GOV College Drinking is a Culture NIAAA College Materials
Accessed 08/16/2011

(2) The Center for Science in the Public Interest College Students and Alcohol Use
Accessed 08/16/2011

(3) Leinwand, Donna College Drug Use, Binge Drinking Rise 03/15/2007 USA Today
Accessed 08/16/2011

(4) Park, Michael College Alcohol Abuse Sparks Drinking Prevention Debate 08/28/2006 Fox News.COM,2933,208172,00.html
Accessed 08/16/2011

(5) College Drinking Prevention.GOV A Snapshot of Annual High-Risk College Drinking Consequences
Accessed 08/16/2011

(6) Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans Alcohol and Drug Abuse on College Campuses
Accessed 08/16/2011

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Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers
The editorial staff of Recovery First is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More