Wasting the Best and the Brightest: Alcohol and Drug Abuse on College Campuses | Center on Addiction

Wasting the Best and the Brightest: Alcohol and Drug Abuse on College Campuses

Wasting the Best and the Brightest: Alcohol and Drug Abuse on College Campuses

May 28, 2007

By Joseph A. Califano, Jr.

The recent report of CASAColumbia (CASA*) at Columbia University, Wasting the Best and the Brightest: Substance Abuse at America’s Colleges and Universities, reveals a disturbing ambiance of hedonistic self-indulgence and an alarming public health crisis on college campuses across this nation.

From 1993, the year of CASA’s original assessment of drinking on the nation’s campuses, to 2005, the last year for which relevant data are available, there has been no significant reduction in the proportion of students who drink (70%vs. 68%) and binge drink (a steady 40%). Far more troubling, the intensity of excessive drinking and other drug use has risen sharply.

The shocking results: Half of all full-time college students (3.8 million) binge drink, abuse prescription drugs and/or abuse illegal drugs. Almost 1 in 4 of the nation’s college students (22.9%, some 1.8 million) meet the medical criteria for substance abuse or dependence, 2 and a half times the proportion (8.5%) of those who meet the criteria in the rest of the population.

Rates of dangerous drinking increased from 1993 to 2001, the latest year for which these data are available. Over that period, the proportion of students who:

  • binge drink frequently (3 or more times in the past 2weeks) is up 16%
  • drink on 10 or more occasions in the past month is up 25%
  • get drunk 3 or more times in the past month is up 26%
  • drink to get drunk is up 21%

And the drug abuse problem among college students goes far beyond alcohol. Since the early 1990’s, the proportion of students using marijuana daily has more than doubled. Use of drugs like cocaine and heroin is up 52%. Student abuse of prescription opioids, stimulants and tranquillizers has exploded. From 1993 to 2005, the proportion of students who abuse prescription painkillers like Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin shot up 343% to 240,000 students; stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall, 93% to 225,000; tranquilizers like Xanax and Valium, 450% to 171,000; and sedatives like Nembutal and Seconal, 225% to 101,000.

This explosion in the intensity of substance abuse among college students carries devastating consequences. Each year:

  • more than 1,700 students die from alcohol poisoning and alcohol-related injuries
  • 700,000 students are assaulted by classmates who were drinking
  • almost 100,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assaults and rapes

Looking at Catholic Institutions

The CASA study, conducted over 4 years, is the most exhaustive examination ever undertaken of the substance abuse situation among the nation’s 7.8 million full-time college students (ages 18 to 22). It did not separate out Jesuit college and university students. Sadly, however, there is no reason to believe they are any better than the general population of college students.

Fordham University is ranked New York City’s number 1 school in self-reported campus alcohol violations, with 905 in 2005, more than 4 times the 194 reported by New York University, which is in second place. (Some of the spread may reflect different reporting methods.) The College of the Holy Cross (my alma mater) has been plagued by a series of tragic incidents over recent years, including accusations of rape by a female student who was drinking heavily (1996), a drunken student killed by a pickup truck (1998), another killed by a train (2000), 1 killed in a fight between drunken classmates (2002) and a student hospitalized in a booze-fueled rugby team hazing (2002). In Spokane, Washington, Gonzaga University basketball players were picked up on suspicion of possession of drugs (marijuana) in February of this year. As at most other colleges, students at Holy Cross, Boston College and Georgetown have engaged in alcohol-fueled rowdy conduct and vandalism that has drawn the ire of neighboring residents and local police.

Why Students Drink and Take Drugs

Why do students drink and drug themselves like this? CASA surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,000 students, who said they did so to relieve stress, relax, have fun, forget their problems and be one of the gang. College women in focus groups said they wanted to keep up with the guys so they went drink for drink with them (though on average 1 drink has the impact on a woman that 2 have on a man). These women also said they were under enormous pressure to have sex and they used alcohol as a disinhibitor.

CASA also surveyed some 400 college administrators and interviewed scores of experts in the field, and the findings are disturbing. At many institutions, college presidents, deans, trustees and alumni accept binge drinking and other drug use as a rite of passage. College presidents and trustees are consumed with raising money, building new facilities and recruiting faculty; the substance abuse problem gets low priority. One Ivy League board chair told me that the alumni resisted efforts to reform drinking and related social practices, particularly among fraternities and clubs. (The CASA report found that excessive drinking and other drug abuse was higher among such groups.) Turnover in administrative positions related to student conduct is high, and resources are low. Many Catholic colleges (and several others) have initiated steps, such as education, prevention efforts and AA meetings, to mitigate the problem.

Tolerating a Culture of Substance Abuse

Nevertheless, the CASA report’s overall grim conclusion: College presidents, deans and trustees have facilitated or tolerated a college culture of alcohol and drug abuse that is linked to poor student academic performance, depression, anxiety, suicide, property damage, vandalism, fights and a host of medical problems. By failing to become part of the solution, these presidents, deans and trustees have become part of the problem. Their acceptance of the status quo of rampant alcohol and other drug abuse puts the best and the brightest—and the nation’s future—in harm’s way.

Edward Malloy, C.S.C., president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame and chair of the CASA advisory commission that supervised the study, says, “College presidents are reluctant to take on issues they feel they cannot change and this growing public health crisis reflects today’s society where students are socialized to consider substance abuse a harmless rite of passage and to medicate every ill.” These institutions have an obligation to confront the problem of campus substance abuse in order to maintain their academic credibility, to protect the health and safety of students on their campuses and to preserve their financial resources from liability for injury and death of students as a result of foreseeable harm from the culture of alcohol and drug abuse and addiction. Catholic universities have an added incentive: the recognition that students, like all of us, are made in God’s image, with an inherent human dignity that should not be debased by excessive use of alcohol. Catholic college campuses incur a special obligation to discourage an atmosphere of excessive alcohol consumption that facilitates the deadly sin of gluttony.

It is time to take the “high” out of higher education. But school administrators cannot do it alone. As Father Malloy also points out, “To change this culture, college and university presidents will need help from parents, alumni, students, Greek and athletic organizations, and state and federal governments.”

Parents bear a significant measure of responsibility. Three-fourths of college drinkers and drug users began drinking and drugging in high school or even earlier. Teen drinking and drug use is a parent problem. Parents who provide the funds for their children in college to purchase alcohol and drugs and party at substance-fueled spring breaks enable the college culture of abuse. If parents cannot say no to children who want to go on such breaks, how can they expect their children to say no to alcohol and marijuana?

What Can Be Done?

Much can be done, and Jesuit colleges can lead the way. They can ban alcohol in dormitories, in most common areas and at campus student parties and college sporting events. They can stop alcohol marketing on campus and at campus athletic events and broadcasts. They should insist that the National College Athletic Association refuse to permit beer advertising during broadcasts of athletic events like the March Madness basketball tournament, which draws a large college audience.

Many students arrange their schedules to have classes only 3 or 4 days a week so that their partying can begin on Wednesday or Thursday evening and continue until Monday morning. Colleges have the power to require that full-time students attend classes at least 5 days a week. Parents who are paying $30,000 to $50,000 a year for room, board and tuition should demand it.

Colleges and universities can engage local authorities to limit the number of bars and retail liquor stores surrounding their campuses. Students should be educated about alcohol abuse, as Georgetown now requires of all freshmen. For a host of other suggestions, see CASA’s Web site, www.CASAColumbia.org, where the entire 256-page report can be downloaded free.

The first step is for college administrators, trustees, alumni and parents to accept responsibility for tossing the nation’s college students into the high seas of alcohol, tobacco and prescription and illegal drugs that so many college campuses and their surrounding communities have become. Substance abuse-free campuses should be the rule, not the exception. Television broadcasts of college athletic events should not be opportunities for beer merchants to hawk their products to underage undergraduates. Admission to elite clubs and fraternities should not carry the risk of alcohol poisoning. Drunkenness should not mark half-time at college football games, nor should Ritalin and Adderall abuse be the price of performance.

Most important, college administrators, trustees, alumni and parents should abandon their view that binge drinking is some harmless rite of passage and instead see it for what it truly is: a dangerous game of Russian roulette that threatens our nation’s best and brightest.

Joseph A. Califano, Jr. is the President and Chairman of CASAColumbia (CASA) at Columbia University. His most recent book, High Society—How Substance Abuse Ravages America and What to Do About It, was published by PublicAffairs Press in May.

Appeared in America magazine on May 28, 2007

*CASAColumbia at Columbia University is neither affiliated with, nor sponsored by, the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association (also known as "CASA") or any of its member organizations with the name of "CASA."


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