Off to College: Preventing and Reducing Substance Abuse on Campus | Center on Addiction

Off to College: Preventing and Reducing Substance Abuse on Campus

Off to College: Preventing and Reducing Substance Abuse on Campus

It’s that time of year when teens across the country are beginning a new chapter in their lives – leaving their parents’ homes to attend – or in many cases – return to college. This back to college season is an important transition in their lives, where young adults are faced with new and exciting challenges, along with some tough decisions and potentially risky situations.

While most colleges and universities have established rules and regulations to restrict nicotine use, dangerous drinking and other drug use, enforcement of these policies is often weak or spotty. And, just as concerning, many schools do not have adequate procedures in place for identifying students at risk for substance abuse or addiction and subsequently, offering services to those who need it.

Parents should ensure that their teens are aware of their school’s rules before they leave for college and talk through some of the consequences that the school has for breaking a rule. Even if parents have not consistently discussed the risks of substance use in the past with their children, brief parent-teen discussions about their expectations can help to form a baseline for healthy behavior in college.

What to do When Your Teen Leaves for College 
Below are some actions parents can take once their children are away at school: 

  • Let the school know that you want to be informed if your teen is involved in an alcohol- or other drug-related incident. This may require completing a form depending on the college
  • If you are the primary holder of your teen’s credit or debit account, keep an eye on their spending habits. If he/she seems to be spending an excessive amount of money at restaurants or bars or withdrawing a lot of cash from ATMs, ask about it. Have ongoing conversations with your children about their grades throughout the semester. If they seem lower than what you expected, talk with them about what may be getting in the way of devoting enough time to studying. Avoid placing undue pressure on your children; many turn to the misuse of addictive controlled prescription drugs (such as stimulants) to stay awake, maintain attention and improve school performance
  • Communicate regularly with your teen–and continue to discuss the temptations and risks of using nicotine, alcohol, and drugs
  • Be vigilant for signs of extreme stress and mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, which frequently predict or co-occur with substance abuse
  • Get professional help if your teen is showing signs or symptoms of addiction

It is also important to recognize that substance-related policies vary considerably across colleges and universities. CASAColumbia has developed 10 Key Action items that colleges and universities can take to prevent and reduce student substance abuse and addiction. This list can be useful to parents who want to understand how their teen’s school policies measure up when it comes to preventing substance abuse on campus.

10 Key Actions for Colleges and Universities to Prevent and Reduce Student Substance Abuse

  1. Set clear and consistent substance use policies and consequences of violations. 
  2. Ban smoking; prohibit alcohol and tobacco ads, sponsorships and promotions on campus; ban alcohol in dorms, in most common areas, at on-campus student parties and at college sporting events.
  3. Screen all students for substance use problems; provide targeted interventions to high-risk students and at times of high risk; provide needed interventions and treatment.
  4. Hold student classes and exams Monday through Friday to reduce weekend substance abuse.
  5. Educate faculty, staff, students, parents and alumni about substance abuse and involve them in prevention activities.
  6. Engage students in service learning courses and community service, which are associated with reduced substance use. 
  7. Offer substance-free recreational opportunities.
  8. Include in the academic curricula information about substance abuse and addiction.
  9. Engage community partners in prevention, enforcement, interventions and treatment.
  10. Monitor rates and consequences of student substance use and evaluate and improve programs and services.


  Michelle Conley

  Michelle Conley is a Communications and Digital Associate
  at CASAColumbia



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