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Fast Facts About Substance Abuse in College Students

substance abuse treatment for college students

College is a time of transition. Teens are moving into adulthood; young adults are moving out of the house for the first time. For many young people, college is the first time that they are truly away from parental supervision and encouraged to make decisions on their own.

In the same breath, college also comes with its own, unique onset of challenges. Often, college students feel a dire need to fit in and prove themselves from the beginning of their school year. They face unique pressures to succeed, academically, athletically, and socially. As a result, many turn to substance use.

Substance abuse among college students is nothing new to our ears. Binge drinking has long-been a problem on college campuses. As a parent, however, you may be wondering the extent of the problem. How frequent is substance use on campus, and is it cause for concern? If you have a child in college, especially one that is working through recovery, you may be looking for more straightforward facts. Let’s start from the beginning.

When do college students typically try alcohol or drugs for the first time?

Fact: The initiation of substance abuse in college students varies, though summertime is thought to be the peak period for trying drugs and alcohol. According to one study, the initiation of alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes, inhalants, and hallucinogens is most common in June and July.

That said, many students will actually try drugs and alcohol for the first-time before entering college. Statistics show that nearly 50 percent of teens try drugs by the end of high school. For the other half who have not, below provides insight into the most likely times for experimentation:

  • On an average day, about 1,100 to 2,000 full-time college students will use alcohol for the first time. During peak months —June, July, September, and December— however, the number of first-time drinkers reaches up to 2,500 college students per day.
  • First nonmedical use of prescription stimulants (e.g. Adderall) among college students typically surges during months of April, November, and December, right around final exams. Over the past decade, there were more than 500 new stimulant users per day during those peak months.
  • First time use of cocaine and nonmedical use of prescription painkillers is highest in December for full-time college students, directly preceding their winter break.

How many college students are using substances for the first-time?

Fact: According to recent research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), on an average day in 2016, more than two thousand full-time college students drank alcohol for the first-time. More than one thousand full-time students used an illicit drug for the first-time per day, on average during that same year. These numbers drop dramatically (about 450 and 175) for part-time college students.

How many college students use substances regularly, beyond experimentation?

Fact: SAMHSA also reports that, on an average day in 2016, more than one million full-time college students drank alcohol. Over 700,000 full-time college students used marijuana on an average day.


Substance abuse in college students is unfortunately on the rise. Back in 2006, 34 percent of U.S. college students had used an illicit drug during the prior year. In 2013, that number rose to 39 percent. In 2016, over 40 percent of college students reported having used an illicit drug over the last 12-month period.


The problem is not exclusive to substance abuse in college students – these young people are also at great risk for substance addiction. In fact, college students are diagnosable at nearly three times the rate of the general public. Yet only six percent of students who meet the criteria for substance abuse or dependence actually seek help for their problem. Many state that they fear the social stigma attached to substance abuse and addiction, therefore preventing them from getting the proper help.


Which drugs are most commonly used by college students?

Fact: Marijuana is the most commonly abused illicit drug by college students today. So much, in fact, that daily marijuana use among college students has actually exceeded their daily alcohol and cigarette use. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, daily marijuana use among college students is now at an all-time high, with 6 percent of full-time college students smoke marijuana daily. 

Other commonly abused substances in college students include alcohol, with over 40 percent of college students having been drunk in the last month, and Adderall, which some college students refer to as the “study drug,” keeping them awake to study all night.

How does substance abuse affect college academics?

Drugs and alcohol are addictive substances that disrupt the chemical makeup of our brains and make it more reliant on substance abuse to function “normally.” Because addiction is defined as a chronic brain disorder, we can expect some impact on a person’s academic performance with regular drug use – especially on youth and young adults, whose brains are still developing.

Fact: Alcohol alone is a factor in 40 percent of academic problems and 28 percent of college drop-outs, according to Turnbridge’s previous infographic. College students who consume more than 10 drinks are more likely to average Ds and Fs in school. In a national survey of college students, over 20 percent reported that they performed poorly on a test or assignment due to alcohol use, while 30 percent missed a class for the same reason. 

In regard to marijuana use, experts state that long-term use can lead to memory and learning issues. For early users in their teens and young adulthood, marijuana can also lead to major declines in IQ points. Research shows that students who marijuana at least weekly are 5.8 times more likely to drop out of school. Those who use marijuana less than weekly are 2.6 times more likely to be school dropouts than those who do not smoke pot at all.

What type of substance abuse treatment do college students need?

If you suspect your loved one is abusing drugs or alcohol in college, it is important to intervene as soon as possible. Often due to fear of not fitting in, most college students will not seek treatment on their own. As a parent or even educator, it is up to you to step in and get them the help they need. Young adults who get treated early on can improve substantially and reach abstinence during their first attempt at sobriety.

The best type of drug treatment for this demographic is one that takes into consideration their unique needs as young adults and as college students. When researching drug treatment centers, look for a facility that specializes in young adult drug treatment. Ask how academics play a role in their recovery process, and how their programs can be tailored to your student’s individual needs. For more about what to look for in a young adult drug rehab, click here.

What options are available for college students in recovery?

You may be asking, “If my child has had a drug problem previously, should he/she be going to college at all?” With the prevalence of substance abuse in college students, this is a common concern among parents. The truth is, you and your child should never feel like education is out of reach, especially due to a substance use disorder. Getting a college education is feasible for those in recovery.

In fact, there are many colleges out there that support student sobriety and that have collegiate recovery programs and dorms. Turnbridge has close relationships with the colleges and universities in Connecticut, to ease our clients’ transition from rehab to college

Of course, precautions should be taken. As a general rule of thumb, students should wait until they have a year or more of sobriety before going to college away from home. It is recommended that they start classes at a local college, so that they can still attend their 12-step meetings, live in sober housing, and stick to their recovery plan. They can also avoid any potential relapse triggers in the college party scene.

It is recommended that for college students battling a substance abuse problem, they attend an academics-informed rehab facility prior to entering campus life. A collegiate recovery program such as Turnbridge Academy can help college students stay sober and continue on their educational path, with one-on-one advising, educational workshops, and customized academic plan development available. Learn more by calling 877-581-1793.