College Alcohol Abuse: Facts And Dangers

Last Updated: June 10, 2020

Authored by Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Alcohol and college students seem to go hand-in-hand, and drinking is often part of the college party culture. Moving away from home and becoming newly independent can be triggers for young adults to begin drinking in ways that are irresponsible and risky. Not all college students are ready for the big changes that come with campus life.
Alcohol may seem like a good way for some students to cope with the stress of college, and it can also be easy to give informal peer pressure without realizing how many problems drinking can cause. The truth is that a lot of college students are drinking too much and putting their health and safety at risk.

What Causes College Drinking?

Many students have already experimented with drinking before arriving at college: more than 60% of students report having had alcohol before. Some simply continue or accelerate their drinking once on campus.
Copying parental behaviors is another factor that can lead to college alcohol abuse. Heavy drinking is more common in children whose parents have alcohol use disorders (AUDs). Additionally, research shows that children from families that talk openly about addictions and emotions are less likely to develop an AUD.
Stressors, such as exams and new responsibilities, can be a significant factor that causes students to abuse alcohol. Many students learn to use alcohol to relax and unwind and to be more comfortable in social situations. Alcohol can be a way to cope with academic pressures and social anxiety.
Environmental changes also contribute to alcohol abuse. Living away from family for the first time, meeting new people, and having new routines are all changes young adults face in college.
Differences between specific universities and residential environments also influence alcohol abuse at college:

  • Students in residential halls tend to drink more than people who live with their families and commute to school.
  • Two-year institutions have lower rates of weekly drink consumption compared to four-year universities.
  • On campuses where alcohol is banned, college alcohol statistics show a decrease in binge drinking of up to 30 percent.
  • On average, people in smaller schools consume more alcohol.
  • Students at schools in the northeastern region of the U.S. drink more than those in other areas.

All of these factors can contribute to college kids drinking, but research shows that the most significant factor is having unstructured time. On a college campus, parties are a major way to spend unstructured time, and while they are essential for social interactions, parties also lead to a lot of peer pressure and drinking. A 1997 study showed that young people select friends that drink the way they do, and they have a big influence on each other’s drinking habits.

How Common Is Alcohol Abuse In College?

College drinking statistics show that alcohol abuse is widespread on campus. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 58 percent of full-time college students had some amount of alcohol within the last month. This is compared to just 48 percent among people in the same age group who are not in college.
Thirty-eight percent of full-time college students engaged in binge drinking in 2013. And, nearly 13 percent participated in heavy drinking, defined as binge drinking five or more times per month. Among non-college students of the same age, only 32 percent binge drank in the last month, and just over eight percent engaged in heavy drinking.
Each year, according to the NIAAA, 1,825 students die from injuries related to alcohol abuse on college campuses, and 696,000 are assaulted by a peer who has been drinking. Twenty percent of college students meet the requirements for being diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder. More than 3.3 million students have driven a vehicle after drinking.

What Are the Effects of College Alcoholism?

Drinking on college campuses can cause a whole range of consequences, from mild to serious and long-lasting. From academic performance to mental and physical health, drinking can cause a lot of harm in all areas of a student’s life:

Poor Academic Performance

The NIAAA reports that one out of four students experiences poor performance in college due to alcohol use, especially among those who binge drank at least three times per week. Some of the problems college students’ drinking experience include missing class, doing poorly on exams, and getting lower grades.

Legal Problems

When under the influence of alcohol, college students may take risks or do things they would never do when sober. Researchers estimate that 110,000 people from age 19 to 24 are arrested each year for an alcohol-related offense, such as public drunkenness or driving under the influence. In one study of 12,651 college students, researchers found that 60 percent of those who committed some type of vandalism of school property were drinking at the time.

Drunk Driving

The results of a 2010 study conducted by researchers at the Center on Young Adult Health and Development (CYAHD) at the University Of Maryland School Of Public Health demonstrated that driving while under the influence is a real problem among students:

  • Approximately 19 percent of students aged 19 and 20 reported they had driven drunk in the past year.
  • Among the same group of students, two out of every five reported having ridden in a vehicle with a driver who was drunk in the past year.
  • Between the ages of 21 and 22, nearly half of the students reported having been a passenger with a driver who had been drinking in the past year.

Sexual Assault

College alcohol statistics show that drinking puts people at a higher risk of becoming victims of sexual abuse and assault. Drinking alcohol causes a person to become less aware of his or her surroundings and lowers levels of physical coordination. It makes it more difficult for that person to defend against an attack or assault.
According to a nationwide Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 25 percent of female college students and 7 percent of male college students reported they had been subject to unwanted sexual advances during their time at school. Two-thirds of these victims had been drinking alcohol at the time of the incidents.

Physical Health Problems

More than 150,000 college students develop an alcohol-related health problem every year. If alcohol abuse in college students continues or worsens, the possible health effects include:

  • Loss and death of brain cells.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Heart complications, including arrhythmia, heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
  • Liver damage.
  • Stomach ulcers.
  • Sexual impotence.
  • Lowered immune system functioning.

College Drinking Prevention

Because the percent of college students who drink is high, and because there are so many potential risks, individuals need to learn to manage their drinking and avoid heavy and binge drinking. Tracking alcohol intake is an excellent way to start. A standard drink in the U.S. is defined as 14 grams of pure alcohol. One drink is a five-ounce glass of wine, a 12-ounce beer, or 1.5 ounces of liquor, and binge drinking is about four drinks per two hours for women and five for men.
Many factors can help to reduce college student drinking and alcohol use disorders:

  • A safe college campus environment that provides sober activities and alternatives to parties
  • Drinking prevention programs on college campuses
  • Campus policies that promote sobriety and moderate drinking
  • Family involvement in helping students who have developed problem drinking habits
  • Mental health support on college campuses to help prevent drinking as a coping mechanism

The first few weeks on campus are important for new students. Studies show that the first six weeks of freshmen year are when students are most likely to engage in heavy drinking and develop harmful habits. Alcohol abuse, binge drinking, and the harmful consequences are issues for many people, but college students are at particular risk. These young people and their families need to be aware of the risks and the dangers and know how to develop healthy drinking attitudes and habits.

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Published on: March 9th, 2018

Updated on: June 10th, 2020

About Author

Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Nena Messina is a specialist in drug-related domestic violence. She devoted her life to the study of the connection between crime, mental health, and substance abuse. Apart from her work as management at addiction center, Nena regularly takes part in the educational program as a lecturer.


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