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Addiction & Drug Use Among College Students

When a student leaves the safety and security of home and arrives on campus, they can expect to gain independence, expand their knowledge, and transition into adulthood. Alongside these opportunities, though, college students face many challenges, including the challenge to complete their education while alcohol and other drugs are readily available.1

Although substance abuse is a concern for every age group and demographic, it is especially concerning for college-aged individuals.1 This population experiences some of the highest levels of substance abuse, which can derail the college experience and result in addiction.1

Drug Use Among College Students

Unfortunately, substance abuse among college students has become more common in recent years.1 College substance use occurs for a variety of reasons, including the facts that drugs in college are increasingly available on campuses, students who participate in Greek life and experience associated pressures to experiment, students may have stress from academic pressure, and they may struggle with peer pressure to use drugs, all of which may increase the risk of drug abuse in college students.1

While each person’s motivation for substance use will be unique, there are important reasons why use of drugs among students is common. College students may drink or take drugs for several reasons, including:2

  • To feel good: Because drugs and alcohol can produce a feeling of euphoria, often called a “high,” they may use substances to experience pleasurable sensations.
  • To feel better: Consciously or not, students may turn to drugs and alcohol to manage stress, anxiety, and depression. This “self-medication” may relieve immediate symptoms but is likely to compound the issues in the future.
  • To do better: When students feel pressure to perform mentally, socially, or athletically, they might choose to use substances, such as performance-enhancing drugs or stimulants.
  • Curiosity and desire to fit in: Experimentation, peer pressure, and a yearning to impress others can contribute to drug abuse in college. This motivation is particularly relevant to teens and young adults entering a new and potentially intimidating environment.

Common Drugs on College Campuses

College students are a unique group, and college drug use can differ somewhat from drugs used by the general population. The most popularly misused drugs in colleges include those discussed below.1


Alcohol is one of the most misused substances by full- and part-time college students.3 Research shows that college students have a higher prevalence of past month drinking and drinking in the past 30 days than noncollege young adults.4

First-year college students are at increased risk of drinking as a result of the widespread availability of alcohol and the perception that drinking alcohol is normal behavior for college students.3 Alcohol use may also be influenced by issues such as separation from families for the first time, new social networks, and increased academic pressure.1

Alcohol use is associated with many negative consequences in college students, including an increased risk of unintentional injuries, a risk of death caused by accidents or car crashes, assault and sexual assault, negative academic consequences, and addiction.5


Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug among college students.3

College students may use marijuana more frequently for several reasons, including the idea that weed represents a sort of rite of passage.3 However, students should know that marijuana can present detrimental consequences, such as a negative short-term impact on learning as well as a risk of poor physical and mental health outcomes.1


College students attempting to get an academic leg up may reach for stimulants to stay awake and study or to improve focus.1 Prescribed medications, when used as directed, can have a decidedly positive impact on those who have a real medical need, but there is no evidence to suggest non-medical stimulant use actually boosts school performance or improves grades.6

Like other myths about drug use that continue to thrive despite evidence to the contrary, the belief that prescription stimulants can improve grades is persistent. College students demonstrate a high rate of prescription stimulant misuse, with one study reporting that stimulant use among young adults aged 18-25 is more common than among older and younger groups.6 College students may also use illicit stimulants, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, though often to a lesser extent.3,4


MDMA/ecstasy is one of the commonly abused drugs on college campuses.1 Ecstasy is also prevalent at events college students may attend, such as concerts, music festivals, and parties or raves.1 Ecstasy is commonly perceived as a safe drug that heightens the party experience, increases the feeling of connection, and enhances the senses.7

However, college students seeking a so-called safe drug to party with may find themselves suffering from unexpected side effects, such as nausea, headache, blurred vision, anxiety, and dehydration.7 Students who purchase ecstasy may also end up taking a different drug altogether, as there have been a number of instances with MDMA containing adulterants such as methamphetamine, ketamine, caffeine, ephedrine, dextromethorphan, heroin, phencyclidine (PCP), and cocaine.8


Prescription opioid misuse continues to be a issue for the country as a whole and affects a significant number of college students.9 Research indicates that misuse of opioid painkillers among college students may be related to several risk factors, such as living off campus or having a low GPA.1

Students who do abuse opioids may do so to:9

  • Get high.
  • Relax.
  • Cope with emotions.
  • Alleviate pain.
  • Experiment.

Painkiller misuse can present serious risks, including addiction, overdose, and death.9

College Drug Use Statistics

Drug use among college students may be as prevalent as it is due to the new freedoms that the college environment offers. As an adolescent moves towards adulthood in a college environment, students are accountable for their decisions and behaviors without the supervision of their parents, for the first time in many cases.

Yet substance use is not without serious risks like addiction. For example, one study found that nearly half of 946 college students who were followed from freshman to junior year met criteria for at least one substance use disorder (SUD), or addiction, during that time.1

The following college drug use statistics illustrate the breadth of drug abuse among college students:4,5

  • According to the 2023 Monitoring the Future (MTF) study, college students had significantly higher rates of alcohol misuse compared to noncollege young adults in the past 12 months, with rates of 80.5% compared to 72.7 %. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, around 15% of college students met the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the diagnosis for alcohol addiction. In addition, 1 in 4 college students report that their drinking resulted in academic consequences, like falling behind in classwork or missing class.
  • The MTF study reports that marijuana use in the past 12 months was similar for college (40.9%) and noncollege (41.6%) young adults in 2022. Daily marijuana use was higher for noncollege young adults than college students, with rates of 14.5% compared to 7.9%. However, in recent years, the number of college young adults who vape marijuana has increased dramatically, from 4.9% in 2017 to 11.2% in 2022.
  • MDMA/ecstasy. According to the MTF study, 1.7% of college students reported using MDMA/ecstasy in the past 12 months.
  • In 2022, 3.6% of college students reported misusing Adderall, a prescription stimulant used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to the MTF. 3.3% reported using cocaine in the past 12 months, and less than 0.05% reported using methamphetamine.
  • The MTF study reports that 0.8% of full-time college students reported misusing opioid painkillers in 2022.

Types of Treatment for Substance Abuse Among College Students

If you or a student you know is struggling with alcohol or drug use in college, you should know that professional addiction treatment can help people stop using substances and start the path to recovery. There are a variety of treatment types, and the right placement can depend on a person’s unique needs and the substances they use.1

Students who use certain substances, such as painkillers, may benefit from professional detox to help them stay safe and comfortable during withdrawal.10 After detox, ongoing addiction recovery programs can take place in a variety of settings and at different levels of intensity, including:10

  • Inpatient/residential If the student requires a high level of supervision and care to manage mental or physical health symptoms, this type of program could be an appropriate option. Students will live at a treatment center to establish a safe environment and focus on their recovery.
  • Outpatient This can occur on different levels of care, ranging from less supportive options that require treatment participation between 1-3 times per week, to highly supportive settings like partial hospitalization programs or intensive outpatient programs that require treatment most days per week. Students can live at home and attend classes, but need to attend treatment on a regular schedule.

Finding Addiction Rehab for College Students

While college substance use is common, it is certainly not a requirement or a rite of passage for every student. If you or a student you know are struggling with college drug use, please reach out to us today. We can help you find the treatment you need to return to a sober life and find success in college and throughout life after school.

You can use our directories tool to find rehabs near you or call our free and confidential helpline at to learn more about your rehab options or to verify your insurance benefits.

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