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College Students & Addiction: Statistics & the Link Between Them

In the past few decades, substance use has become one of the most widespread health problems on American college campuses. Students drink at parties, take drugs with friends, and ingest prescription medications during study sessions. Some develop addictions that derail their academic careers.

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While substance abuse is common on most campuses, students with addictions can get better. Many college administrators recognize addiction’s impact and offer robust screening programs in health centers. And some colleges offer sober living options for students in recovery.

These small steps could eventually break the ties between college and substance abuse. But for now, the problem remains. Keep reading to find out why addiction is so common and what you can do to help a student in need. 

Statistics About Addiction in College Students

Key Facts

Why Is Addiction Common in College Students?

Years ago, parents encouraged their children to go to college, thinking an education would keep them away from drugs. Why is the reverse happening? Every student is different, with unique pressures and preferences, but researchers believe the following factors could play a role: 


Most college students are accustomed to academic stress. In a study of high school students, close to 50 percent felt a great deal of stress daily. But college is different. In addition to worrying about grades and performance, students must pay their bills, buy groceries, cook meals, and run a household. 

For some, the pressure becomes overwhelming, and substance abuse takes hold. A drink of alcohol seems calming, or a hit of marijuana feels relaxing. In time, these stressed students may feel unable to relax without drugs. Occasional use can quickly snowball into daily use, and an addiction forms.

Peer Pressure 

Wild, alcohol-fueled parties are common on college campuses. More than 60 percent of students have attended at least one party where alcohol was consumed, and about a third of parties attended by students ages 15 to 20 also included marijuana or other drugs.

Students want to meet peers, cut loose, and relieve stress and pressure. A party may seem like a fun way to accomplish all these goals. But once students arrive, they may feel required to take drugs or drink to fit in. 

There is also the persistent idea that college should involve hard partying. Movies and television shows have long portrayed this college lifestyle, and many students feel like they are missing out on the quintessential college experience if they don’t participate.

New Independence

Close to 10 percent of college students ages 18 to 22 drank alcohol for the first time, and about 6 percent used illicit drugs for the first time. When students don’t feel supervised by parents, siblings, grandparents, and other authority figures, they may try new personas and experiences.

For some students, using substances is a form of rebellion. Others consider it a rite of passage required before they become adults. And sometimes, a simple experiment can become a lifelong problem. 

Easy Access

Some high school students don’t use alcohol or drugs because they can’t access these substances. When they head to college, everything changes. 

For example, about two-thirds of students who abuse the prescription medication Adderall get it from their friends and roommates. If they couldn’t get the drug, they might never abuse it. But when substances are readily available, it’s easy to get started. 

What Substances Do College Students Abuse?

Researchers say college students use a variety of substances, depending on what their peers are using and what’s readily available in their area. But the most common substances abused by college students across the United States include alcohol, marijuana, prescription pills, and ecstasy. 


Close to 50 percent of full-time college students drink alcohol monthly, and more than 27 percent binge drink monthly. Typically, these episodes happen in party situations. Students get together to celebrate a football victory or the end of mid-term testing, and they drink too much as a group.


Close to 40 percent of college students use this drug, and more than 26 percent have used it while on their college campuses. As states make recreational marijuana use legal, more students dabble with substance abuse.

Marijuana is also associated with countercultural movements, and its use has been promoted in popular music and art. For some students, using marijuana is a way to signal future participation in a group they consider inspirational. 

Prescription Pills

Students are under intense academic pressure, particularly during exam periods. All-night study parties and cram sessions have been part of college life for decades, but some modern students add drugs to the mix. 

The prescription ADHD medication Ritalin is a particular problem on college campuses. The drug can allow students to stay awake for hours, and they may feel more focused during that time. Ritalin is one of the most abused prescription drugs by college students for this reason. 

Researchers say opioid abuse in college students has risen dramatically in the past 20 years. Vicodin, OxyContin, and other prescription painkillers can deliver a powerful high, especially when crushed and snorted. The drugs also don’t cause hangovers, so some students feel like they can party and hit the books the next day. 


About 4 percent of college students use MDMA or ecstasy. The drug causes mild euphoria along with a strong affinity for physical touch. Some students abuse the drug in party situations, including those with a loud dance floor. But others take the drug privately to improve sexual encounters and feelings of closeness with others. 

Addiction Risk Factors

It’s clear that most college students experiment with alcohol and drugs. But what pushes some students into addiction while others walk away? Researchers say risk factors don’t exist in isolation. Most students have risks that overlap and intertwine. 

These are common addiction risk factors:

  • Parents with a history of substance abuse, mental illness, or physical abuse
  • Poverty
  • Exposure to violence
  • Racism
  • Lack of economic opportunity

A student’s drug of choice matters too. Some substances, including opioids and Ritalin, are so powerful that they can cause brain cell changes within just a few doses, boosting the risk of addiction. 

What Does Addiction Look Like?

Students with addiction issues rarely excel in school. They miss classes, fall asleep during lectures, and avoid study sessions. A sudden dip or drop in grades can be a clear sign that a student is struggling and needs help.

Students may also display other telltale signs, including the following:

  • Spending time with new, drug-using friends
  • Avoiding once-loved activities (such as intramural sports or hiking) in favor of drug-associated activities (such as dancing at clubs or watching movies)
  • Lack of money
  • Frequent requests for drugs or alcohol 

Drug Use Prevention Tips & Resources for College Students

While drug and alcohol experimentation is common, it’s not unavoidable. If students do experiment, parents can take steps to ensure their children don’t develop addiction. These are good steps to consider:

Connect With the Health Center

Many students experiment with alcohol and drugs because they’re stressed, upset, and sad. Campus health centers report that many students are seeking mental health care services. If your student is struggling, encourage them to make an appointment with a professional to deal with the problem rather than masking it with drugs or alcohol. 

Talk to the Family Doctor

Most health insurance plans allow students to stay on a parent’s plan until age 26. Coverage allows a student to visit a trusted healthcare professional to talk about stress, anxiety, substance abuse, and more. Students with concerns should make an appointment and get the conversation started. 

Find Sober Peers

Some students actively avoid drugs and alcohol while they’re at school. For example, more than 140 American schools have recovery programs for students who have completed addiction treatment programs. 

Students can connect with their activity center or advisor and ask about sober groups. They could also connect with classmates and form their own sober peer group. This can be a vital source of support and companionship in an atmosphere that often prioritizes substance use and abuse.

Treatment Options for Addiction in College Students

While some students tap into prevention programs and never develop addiction issues, some students need more help. A treatment program could be a good next step. 

Addiction treatment programs fall into the following two basic camps:

  • Inpatient treatment: The student takes time away from school, moves into a treatment facility, and works on the addiction problem around the clock. 
  • Outpatient treatment: The student lives at home or on campus while working on their addiction. Some programs are intensive, meaning the student must stop taking classes for a time. But others are not, allowing a student to stay on course while getting better.

Some treatment programs involve medications to ease withdrawal symptoms, halt cravings, and ease recovery. Some students also benefit from medications to address underlying mental health conditions that complicate recovery. For example, some students may be prescribed antidepressants to manage depression or anti-anxiety medications to deal with panic attacks.

Most programs involve an element of counseling, helping students to understand their relapse triggers and build their skills. These lessons could help students avoid substance abuse even after their college careers end. The work done in therapy can help them to form the foundation of a healthy life in recovery.

If a student you love is struggling, talk about how addiction works and offer to help find the right treatment program. Together, you can ease addiction worries and help the student get better.

Updated October 12, 2023
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