Article at a Glance:
- More than half of college students under the age of 22 drink alcohol, and one-third have experiences with binge drinking.
- Drinking in college can lead to poor academic performance, injury, assaults, health issues and even death.
- Regular binge drinking in college can greatly increase a person’s risk for alcohol dependence or addiction, which often persists after graduation.
- Resources to address unhealthy drinking in college include individual counseling, support groups, crisis services and more intensive forms of treatment.
Table of Contents
Alcohol Use in College
There is undoubtedly a drinking culture that surrounds many college campuses. It’s so common that many people feel drinking in college isn’t just okay — it’s a socially accepted norm. For some, it’s even a rite of passage.
Unfortunately, the culture that embraces drinking huge amounts of alcohol in college contributes to serious and sometimes deadly consequences. Many of these consequences have shown up as front-page news, including sexual assaults and violence related to alcohol. There have been cases where young men joining fraternities drink so much that they ultimately die.
There are constant reminders of alcohol’s effects on decision-making and safe sexual practices. Excessive drinking can have very real consequences, including legal issues, car accidents, injuries, alcohol poisoning and countless others. Despite these risks, some college students don’t seem deterred. This led the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) to investigate just how common college alcohol abuse may be.
Rates of Alcoholism Among College Students
The impacts of drinking and alcohol addiction among college students are more widespread than you might think. In fact:
- More than half of college students aged 18 to 22 reported drinking alcohol in the past month; around one-third engaged in binge drinking during that time frame.
- Each year, around 696,000 full-time college students aged 18 to 24 are believed to be assaulted by intoxicated students.
- One in four college students report facing negative academic consequences due to drinking, including falling behind on schoolwork and missing classes.
- A 2019 national survey found that around 9% of college students meet the defined criteria for an alcohol use disorder.
- Thousands of college students visit emergency rooms each year because of alcohol poisoning.
- In a recent survey conducted by The Recovery Village, 39.7% of respondents had their first alcoholic drink between the ages of 18 and 25, with the largest percentage (47%) having their first drink before 18.
Binge Drinking Among College Students
Many college students don’t keep track of just how much they’re drinking. National data shows that in 2019, one-third of full-time college students aged 18—22 engaged in binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined by having a blood alcohol concentration at 0.08 g/dL or more, which is around five drinks in two hours for men and four for women. While binge drinking alone does not indicate a severe alcohol use disorder, it is a risk factor.
Factors Affecting Student Drinking
There are several factors that can influence why a college student chooses to drink. For a lot of young people, college is the first time they are independent and living away from home, which can lead to experimentation. In addition, alcohol is often more readily available and can be a big part of socializing at some colleges. As a student drinks more regularly, they’ll also tend to build a tolerance and be able to drink more before getting intoxicated.
Developing Alcoholism in College
Some students may see drinking as a fun, harmless way to socialize and relieve some stress. However, heavy drinking in college can lead to an alcohol use disorder. One study found that college students who binge drink more than three times within a two-week period are 19 times more likely to develop alcohol dependence. Further, they are 13 times more likely to develop an alcohol addiction compared to students who do not binge drink.
Signs of Alcoholism in College Students
Common signs of alcohol addiction include:
- Losing self-control over alcohol consumption amounts
- Keeping your drinking a secret
- Drinking alone or throughout the day
- Gaining weight or experiencing other physical changes
- Continuing to drink despite negative consequences, such as failing a class or losing friends
If you notice any of these signs in yourself or a loved one and suspect unhealthy alcohol use, it can be helpful to speak to a professional about the next steps you may need to take.
Consequences of Harmful and Underage College Drinking
Underage or heavy college drinking is associated with harmful consequences that can impact nearly every aspect of a person’s life.
- Academic Problems
Around 25% percent of college students report that their drinking led to decreased academic performance, including missing class or not turning assignments in on time. In addition, students who binge drink three or more times per week are six times more likely to perform poorly on a test or school project.
- Physical Effects
The brain can continue developing through age 25, meaning that many college students still have developing brains. Drinking can interfere with brain development and impact judgment, control and other psychological functions down the line.
Binge drinking can also lead to:
- Memory and learning problems
- High blood pressure
- Liver disease
- Heart disease
- Unintended pregnancy
- Poor pregnancy outcomes
- Sexually transmitted infections
- Behavioral Effects
Unhealthy drinking in college can contribute to multiple behavioral issues, including:
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
- Loss of hobbies or friendships in favor of spending time drinking
- A high tolerance for alcohol, which can lead to increased drinking
- Hangovers or alcohol withdrawal that interferes with a person’s life
- Mood swings or changes in mood
- An inability to stop drinking, despite trying
- Drunk Driving
Each day in the U.S., 29 people die in car accidents involving someone who is driving under the influence of alcohol. College students are at an even higher risk, as young people are more likely to be involved in a car crash than older people. Additionally, the risk of alcohol-impaired driving often peaks in young adulthood.
- Sexual Abuse, Assault, Unsafe Sex
People who are under the influence of alcohol are at risk of acting impulsively and engaging in unsafe sexual practices that can have long-term consequences. The NIAAA estimates that nearly 100,000 students aged 18 to 24 experience an alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape each year.
It’s estimated that more than 1,500 college students aged 18 to 24 die each year from unintentional alcohol-related accidents, including car crashes and other types of incidents.
- Alcohol Poisoning
Drinking too much might seem like a harmless mistake, where the worst that can happen is a few embarrassing mishaps. In reality, however, it can have deadly consequences.
Alcohol overdose (or poisoning) occurs when there’s too much alcohol in the bloodstream. This impacts the brain’s ability to manage basic life-maintaining functions, such as breathing, circulation and temperature control.
Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
- Mental confusion
- Difficulty staying conscious
- Slow or irregular breathing
- Slow heart rate
- Low body temperature
- Clammy, bluish or pale skin
- Loss of reflexes
Alcohol poisoning is not to be taken lightly. It can lead to permanent brain damage or even death. A person may not have every symptom, and if they have passed out from too much alcohol, they could be at risk of dying.
Alcohol poisoning can be fatal. If you suspect someone is experiencing alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately. Do NOT be afraid to seek help. If you do not have access to a phone, contact Web Poison Control Services for online assistance.
Resources Available to College Students
If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol use in college, there are several helpful resources that you can turn to.
Many colleges have school counselors and other services that allow college students to connect to a mental health professional for free or at a low cost. In addition, student health insurance often covers mental health services.
When searching for a counselor or therapist through these services, look for someone who has experience with unhealthy alcohol use or addiction. If you’re stuck, check out FindTreatment.gov or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
In addition to support groups that your campus or faith-based community may offer, there are free national groups you can explore. These include:
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
- Moderation Management
- SMART Recovery
- Women for Sobriety
- Al-Anon is also an option for friends and family members who are concerned about someone who engages in unhealthy alcohol use.
It’s helpful to have a plan in mind before there’s a crisis. These national hotlines can be called anytime, as they are staffed by helpful representatives 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To ensure you can find help when you need it the most, it’s a good idea to bookmark or save these numbers in your contacts:
- Call or text 911
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- TrevorLifeline: 1-866-488-7386
- National Runaway Safeline: 1-800-RUNAWAY (786-2929)
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
- Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Text 838255
The more you know about alcohol abuse and addiction, the more you’ll be empowered to manage your drinking and recognize when you need additional help. There are several national resources that you can turn to, including:
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
The Recovery Village
If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol use, The Recovery Village is here to help. We provide a full continuum of care that addresses addiction as well as the underlying factors that led to alcohol abuse in the first place. Contact us today to learn more about the treatment programs and specialized support we can offer you.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Binge Drinking.” December 30, 2019. Accessed September 11, 2021.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Impaired Driving: Get the Facts.” August 24, 2020. Accessed September 11, 2021.
- College Drinking. “Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose (or ‘Alcohol Poisoning’).” Accessed September 11, 2021.
- Courtney, Kelly; Polich, John. “Binge Drinking in Young Adults: Data, Definitions, and Determinants.” Psychological Bulletin, September 22, 2009. Accessed September 11, 2021.
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “Current Environment: Alcohol, Driving, and Drinking and Driving.” January 17, 2018. Accessed September 11, 2021.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “College Drinking.” January 2021. Accessed September 11, 2021.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). “Alcohol Use Disorder in Past Year among Persons Aged 18 to 22, by College Enrollment Status and Demographic Characteristics: Percentages, 2018 and 2019.” September 11, 2020. Accessed September 11, 2021.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). “Types of Illicit Drug, Tobacco Product, and Alcohol Use in Past Month among Persons Aged 18 to 22, by College Enrollment Status and Gender: Percentages, 2018 and 2019.” September 11, 2020. Accessed September 11, 2021.
- University of Nevada. “Is Binge Drinking in College Worth a Lifetime of Damage and Health Issues?” Accessed September 11, 2021.
- University of Rochester Medical Center. “College Students and the Dangers of Binge Drinking.” Accessed September 11, 2021.
- Medical Disclaimer
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.