Substance Abuse at America’s Colleges and Universities | Center on Addiction

Wasting the Best and the Brightest: Substance Abuse at America's Colleges and Universities

Wasting the Best and the Brightest: Substance Abuse at America's Colleges and Universities

Published: March 2007

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Substance abuse by college students is a major issue at U.S. colleges and universities. The student culture of abuse of addictive substances and the availability of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs on campuses across America has resulted in a range of harmful academic, health and social consequences that extend into the surrounding communities.


CASAColumbia’s work for this report involved:

  • A nationally representative telephone survey of 2,000 college students
  • Surveys of approximately 400 college and university administrators
  • Extensive analyses of 6 national data sets
  • Interviews with key researchers and other leaders in the field
  • Focus groups with college students and parents of college students
  • A review of approximately 800 publications


The report found that from 1993 to 2005, there had been no real decline in the proportion of students who drink (70% to 68%) and binge drink (40% to 40%). However, the intensity of excessive drinking and rates of drug abuse had jumped sharply:

  • Between 1993 and 2001, the proportion of students who
    • Binge drank frequently rose by 16%
    • Drank on 10 or more occasions in a month rose by 25%
    • Got drunk at least 3 times a month rose by 26%
    • Drank to get drunk rose by 21%
  • Between 1993 and 2005, the proportion of students who abused prescription drugs increased
    • 343% for opioids like Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin
    • 93% for stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall
    • 450% for tranquilizers like Xanax and Valium
    • 225% for sedatives like Nembutal and Seconal
  • Between 1993 and 2005, the proportion of students who
    • Used marijuana daily more than doubled
    • Used cocaine, heroin, and other illegal drugs (except marijuana) rose by 52%

Meanwhile, consequences of substance abuse on college campuses included:

  • More than 1,700 deaths from unintentional alcohol-related injuries in 2001, up 6% from 1998
  • A 38% increase from 1993 to 2001 in the proportion of students injured as a result of their own drinking
  • A 21% increase from 2001 to 2005 in the average number of alcohol-related arrests per campus

Other key findings:

  • 97,000 students were victims of alcohol-related rape or sexual assault in 2001
  • Also in 2001, 696,000 students were assaulted by a student who had been binge drinking
  • Nearly 38% of college administrators said that the major barrier to more effective prevention was the public perception that substance use by college students was a normal rite of passage
  • Fraternity and sorority members were likelier than nonmembers to drink (89% vs. 67%), binge drink (64% vs. 37%), drink and drive (33% vs. 21%), use marijuana (21% vs. 16%) or cocaine (3% vs. 2%), and smoke (26% vs. 21%)
  • 37% of college students feared social stigma attached to substance abuse, which kept them from seeking help; only 6% of students who met clinical criteria for alcohol or drug abuse or dependence sought help

This report concluded that institutions of higher education have an obligation to take on the problem, and called on university presidents and trustees to take the lead. It also identified critical roles for parents, students, alumni, Greek and athletic organizations, community leaders, state and federal policymakers and the alcohol and tobacco industries. 


Recommendations for college administrators and other policymakers include:

  • Working to change the culture of substance use on college campuses
  • Setting clear policies and enforcing them in consistent and predictable ways
  • Banning smoking on campus
  • Banning alcohol in dorms, in most common areas, at on-campus student parties and at college sporting events
  • Sharply restricting all tobacco advertising, marketing and promotion on college campuses
  • Stepping up evidence-based prevention and cessation efforts, including counteradvertising programs and targeted help for high-risk students
  • Enforcing laws restricting sale of tobacco to minors and enacting indoor and outdoor clean air laws to limit exposure to secondhand smoke

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