Updated February 4, 2021
College is often a time when young people experiment with new and sometimes risky behaviors. Among them: binge drinking and the use of recreational drugs. But just how prevalent really is substance abuse on college campuses, and how much should prospective students and their families be concerned? We’ll answer these questions and others with the help of new data that FHE Health recently collected in a firsthand survey of college students.
Is Substance Abuse in College Really a Large Problem?
Between the mounting academic pressures, the desire to cut loose, and the newfound freedom of being away from home, college is prime time for people to experiment with drugs and to potentially develop a college drug addiction. For many students, college is their first experience with substances; others come to campus ready to party.
To get an inside view of what college drug use is really like on campus today, we surveyed 1,000 current and former college students. We wanted to know the following:
- What types of drugs are they using?
- How easily can they access them?
- And how do college drug use and college drug addiction correlate with factors such as academic success and the person writing the tuition check?
Curious to learn what students said? Read on for those eye-opening answers.
Drugs Are Easy to Come By in College
If college students want to experiment with drugs, they first have to be able to procure them. However, more than 75 percent of students report that it’s “easy” or “very easy” to score what they want, which raises their chances of developing a drug addiction in college.
Fewer than five percent report it’s “difficult” to access drugs, and only around one percent think it’s “very difficult.” Many students don’t have to go far to buy drugs either: Just over half of our respondents say that they’ve purchased drugs on college campuses.
Drug access for young adults in college soars compared with perceived availability for high school students. According to the 2016 Monitoring the Future survey, around 20 percent of 12th graders say it’s easy to get heroin, 28 percent say it’s easy to get LSD, 29 percent report it’s easy to get cocaine, and 33 percent report they can easily get ecstasy.
Slightly more available drugs include narcotics other than heroin (39 percent can easily get them) and amphetamines (41 percent). Marijuana, naturally, is the easiest to obtain, with 81 percent of high school seniors reporting it’s “fairly easy” or “very easy” to buy weed.
Trading Sex for Drugs in College
“Literally all the time.” That was a campus drug dealer’s response when asked by a reporter if people ever offer sex in exchange for drugs during a 2015 interview. Among our survey respondents, 14 percent said they’ve had sex with their dealer for drugs.
Which illicit drugs do college students deem worth the trade? Nearly 43 percent of people who say they’ve had sex with their dealer did so for cocaine. This drug is considered one of the most addictive, as it affects the brain’s use of dopamine, activating the powerful reward pathways; and, acording to the 2017 Global Drug Survey, on a gram-for-gram basis cocaine is also the most expensive, frequently used drug in the world.
Around 17 percent have traded sex for opiates such as Oxycontin, while another seven percent each have done so to score ecstasy and benzos (such as Xanax). However, fewer than three percent of respondents had sex for LSD or meth.
If you or anyone you know has agreed to sleep with someone in order to score drugs, please consider whether or not you have a college drug addiction and need assistance with college drug addiction recovery.
The Cost of Drugs for College Students
Higher education brings plenty of expenses: tuition and fees, housing, food, textbooks and supplies, transportation, and more. According to the College Board, a student at an in-state public college can expect to spend nearly $25,000 per year, while a student at a private college might spend nearly $50,000.
However, for some students, the cost of illegal drugs may also factor into the equation. Among every college we looked at, students who used drugs at Florida State University spent the most on drugs— nearly $300 per month. Students at California State University spent slightly less (around $262 per month), followed by Florida International University students ($253), and University of Central Florida students ($208).
On the other end of the spectrum, students who used drugs at the University of Georgia averaged only around $27 per month expenditures. The school is known for its strict alcohol and drug policy. On the lower end, students at the University of California, Davis, spent $65 per month, and students at California State University, Long Beach, spent nearly $69.
How Does College Drug Use Affect Grades?
Using drugs can cause side effects and structural changes in the brain, particularly for adolescents. Substance use also makes students more likely to oversleep, skip classes, and struggle with academics. Surprisingly, among our survey respondents, surprisingly, students who took benzodiazepines averaged the highest GPA (3.8) compared with those who took other drugs.
People who used ketamine averaged the lowest GPA (3.0). This powerful anesthetic is generally given to patients before operations and is recently being used to treat depression. However, consumed without medical supervision, this club drug can cause hallucinations, make people feel detached, and even change their sense of sight and sound.
LSD, inhalants, opiates, and marijuana were also linked with slightly lower GPAs, according to our survey. If you find that your GPA is suffering due to college drug use, it may be worth considering whether a drug addiction is the real problem.
Paying Tuition and Drug Use
Funds for college tuition come from various sources—parents or guardians, scholarships, student loans, or the students themselves. We asked survey respondents which drugs they took most commonly and compared the results with their payment methods, and their responses yielded interesting insights.
Regardless of how they paid for college, cocaine was the drug of choice for many of our respondents, a substance that could quickly surface as a college drug addiction but can be helped with drug addiction recovery. However, one fact stood out: Among those who use cocaine, nearly 37 percent have parents paying for college (compared with 31 percent paying their own way, 26 percent on scholarship, and 23 percent using student loans). This may signify that students with families footing the bill have more room in their budgets for drugs.
Opiates (such as OxyContin) were the most popular drug among those paying for college with student loans. Mushrooms were disproportionately popular for students paying with student loans as well as those with scholarships. For students using a combination of payment methods (such as student loans and family assistance), amphetamines stood out for their popularity.
Frequently Asked Questions and Answers
If any of the above survey findings are surprising or shocking, that may be because drug abuse and addiction are often ecclipsed by the bigger problem of alcohol abuse on college campuses nationwide. Because alcohol is cheap, legal, easily accessible, and far more socially accepted, it’s responsible for a disproportionate share of substance abuse on college campuses.
Alcohol abuse therefore typically receives more focus, as these frequently asked Q&As about college substance abuse also convey….
Is alcohol abuse in college a problem?
Yes, most definitely. In the words of a college drinking alert by the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, “Harmful and underage college drinking are significant public health problems, and they exact an enormous toll on the lives of students on campuses across the United States.”
The same alert by the NIAAA went on to catalogue the harm from binge drinking and other ritualized behaviors involving alcohol. The consequences include death, assault, sexual assault, and—for nearly 10 percent of college students—the development of an alcohol use disorder. Meanwhile, roughly one in four students reports that alcohol is negatively impacting their academics.
The ritualization and normalization of college drinking, as well as the more latent peer pressures that surround it, help to explain why alcohol abuse in college is such a problem.
How much alcohol do college students drink?
Roughly 55 percent of college students said they drank in the last week, according to the 2018 “National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).” More alarmingly, a high proportion of students—almost 40 percent—said they binge drank in the last month. “Binge drinking,” as defined by the NSDUH, is the equivalent of five or more drinks in one occasion for men and four or more drinks in one occasion for women.
Where do underaged students buy alcohol?
When a 2008 study in the Journal of Drug Education asked this same question, they found underaged students typically get alcohol through friends and acquaintances who are old enough to buy it legally. Fake IDs are another common means of procuring alcohol. And, the nomenclature of “shoulder tapping” (much like “bumming a cigarette” off a stranger) also applies: Many underaged students will ask a stranger to purchase them alcohol.
Why are college students susceptible to alcohol-related problems?
In addition to the ritualization and normalization of drinking on campuses, many college students are dealing with newfound stressors that can make them more susceptible to alcohol problems. They’re in a totally new environment, in which they’re coming to terms with their identity as a young adult. They’re also navigating greater social and academic pressures.
Meanwhile, the average college student is not usually thinking about their mortality and the very real dangers of binge drinking and heavy alcohol consumption. For example, when they’re at a party and someone hands them a beer and then another, they’re not usually paying attention to how much they’re drinking. It’s usually not even on their radar.
How many students get alcohol poisoning a year?
Alcohol poisoning or overdose, which can occur when the level of alcohol in the bloodstream is at .25 percent or higher, can result in a loss of consciousness, coma, or death from respiratory arrest. Each year thousands of college students reportedly end up in the ER because of alcohol poisoning. Every year 1800 college students on average will die from alcohol poisoning— at least according to official estimates dating back to 2015.
Battling College Drug Addiction
College is a challenging time, and it’s natural for students to turn to alcohol and drugs in order to cope. But using these substances can have devastating consequences that go well beyond flunking out. Remember, it’s possible to have fun in college while staying sober.
If you or someone you know struggles with addiction and is in need of addiction recovery, please don’t hesitate to reach out. There is no better time to seek rehab than during young adulthood when the brain is still developing and highly responsive to neuro and behavioral interventions that can rewire the mind and restore full mental health. FHE Health has helped many young adults successfully recover from substance abuse and other co-occurring mental health disorders. Contact us today to begin the journey to hope and healing.
We surveyed 1,082 people who reported using drugs while attending college. Our respondents chose to participate in the survey and the only qualifiers were that the people surveyed had to have used drugs while in college. Marijuana was left out due to its varying legality in some states in the United States.