Substance use doesn’t have to be a normal part of the college experience.

Wake up. Attend class. Eat lunch. Attend class. Cram for a final exam or make last-minute additions to an assignment. Attend another class. Eat dinner. Do your homework. Do it all over again the next day, while anticipating the weekend and all the parties planned. Rinse and repeat the next week. Maybe even sprinkle in a party during the week on a school night. Because why not, right? That’s what college is all about, right?

Many people have the mentality that partying is part of the college routine. The college years are a time when choices can shape how you manage your time, health and substance use.

Because substance use is widely accepted during college age, the college experience can be a challenge for those who wish to remain sober or who are in recovery from addiction.

Prevalence of College Substance Use

The Recovery Village surveyed 400 people about college substance use, and 82.25% of respondents said that they think it’s normal to experiment with drugs or alcohol. The survey results demonstrate how prevalent drug and alcohol use is on college campuses, along with which substances respondents reported trying during college.

Of the survey respondents who attended college, 71.5% reported using drugs or alcohol at least once during their college years. Of these respondents, 94.7% reported drinking alcohol while in college, while 66.8% reported using marijuana.

While alcohol and marijuana are more common among experimenting young adults, some respondents reported using other substances, including prescription medication and illicit hard drugs. Nearly 23% of respondents used prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes, while 18.3% tried cocaine at least once. These substances can be extremely addictive, especially during the formative college years.

The College Culture Crisis

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly 1 in 6 people ages 18 to 25 live with a substance use disorder. Because substance use is so common among college-aged adults, addiction can be a challenging result.

Substance use is embedded in the college experience for many people. When asked why they used substances during college, 67.25% of respondents from The Recovery Village survey said that they used drugs or alcohol “to have fun in college.” Some people selected more than one answer, including 51% who chose “to deal with stress” and 50.6% who said they wanted to “feel the effects” of drugs or alcohol. These popular responses indicate the multiple and varied reasons behind college substance use, but each of them ties back to the overall college experience.

While many people often attribute peer pressure to early substance use, The Recovery Village survey revealed that most respondents used drugs and alcohol without major influence from others. Nearly 62% of participants said they did not feel pressured to experiment with alcohol or drugs while in college. Instead of trying substances to fit in with others, most respondents used drugs or alcohol to try to manage stress, have a good time or to experience their effects firsthand.

The SAMHSA Behavioral Health Among College Students Information & Resource Kit attributes young adult substance use to the college lifestyle:

“Students’ use of marijuana, the most common illicit drug, is also boosted by a recreational mindset that views use of the drug as a rite of passage,” the source states. “Much of college students’ use of other illicit drugs, mostly misuse of medications, appears to be related largely to the pressures of college life.”

Although substance use is part of the culture of college for many, it doesn’t mean that it’s not a potential risk.

Lauren Groskaufmanis, an EMT of a college town, shares her perspective in the Duke Chronicle“My experience working as an EMT in a college town made me seriously question the acceptance and flippancy with which society treats binge drinking on college campuses,” she said. “I strongly believe that a normalization of binge drinking on campus poses a significant health risk to students, one that is commonly trivialized by our peers and society.”

The Path to Normalization

Why did alcohol and drug use become such a prominent and normal feature of college life? There is a normalized view of regular substance use, experimentation and partying. Movies like “Animal House”, “Neighbors” and “The House Bunny” make college parties look like the objective image of what college life should be. TV shows such as “Greek” and “Grown-ish,” also treat drinking and drugs as a normal part of the college experience.

Popular music also details college life as involving one alcohol- and drug-infused social activity after another. With an overarching cultural representation, drinking and exploring drugs such as marijuana or cocaine is normalized for American teenagers entering college.

College students are typically adults, but in many cases, they may not engage in responsible substance use. Studies show that those who view themselves as more mature are often less likely to misuse alcohol, and many of the milestones studies use to measure maturity are not achieved until after college.

This maturity can impact the perception of substance use for college students. Although 79.2% of The Recovery Village survey respondents believe that drug and alcohol use is “just part of the college experience,” the majority of respondents (76%) said that they do not think it’s beneficial for college students to experiment with alcohol or drugs during college.

What Some Campuses Are Doing

According to a 2017 article in the Chicago Tribune, some schools have started collegiate recovery programs to help students who have a history of addiction or those who develop a substance use disorder during their college tenure. Transforming Youth Recovery, a non-profit program has been leading the way in providing college grants to begin these sobriety-based initiatives. According to the group’s website, there were 162 schools with collegiate recovery programs as of 2017.

These programs include mental health counseling, along with group meetings so that students can find peers who are struggling with similar issues. One-on-one support sessions and substance-free events and activities also are included, allowing teenagers and young adults the opportunity to enjoy the social aspects of college in a supportive setting.

The Recovery Village survey reveals that many people believe campus living contributes to substance use. More than 68% of respondents said that they believe living on campus increases the likelihood of substance use among college students. To combat this trend, some universities have created on-campus housing options for students who wish to live in a substance-free environment.

If you are in college or about to begin your freshman year and want to know if your school has a recovery program, contact administration. If the school does not have one, you could be instrumental in setting up a new program by contacting members of the college, including:

  • President’s office
  • Dean of Students offices
  • On-campus counseling and psychiatry offices
  • Health and wellness groups
  • Residential life leaders
  • The Dean’s office
  • Student Government

Providing sober alternatives on campus can help change the perception of college life and encourage students to participate in other activities. Education about substance use in early adulthood can also help students make informed choices about drugs and alcohol.

Living a sober life while in college can be empowering. If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use while in college, The Recovery Village can help. With locations across the country and teletherapy options, The Recovery Village provides comprehensive services for adults. Call today to learn more about treatment options.

a woman with long brown hair smiling at the camera.
Editor – Renee Deveney
As a contributor for Advanced Recovery Systems, Renee Deveney is passionate about helping people struggling with substance use disorder. With a family history of addiction, Renee is committed to opening up a proactive dialogue about substance use and mental health. Read more
a man with a beard wearing a suit and tie.
Medically Reviewed By – Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN
Benjamin Caleb Williams is a board-certified Emergency Nurse with several years of clinical experience, including supervisory roles within the ICU and ER settings. Read more

Lipari, Rachel N. & Van Horn, Struther L. “Trends in Substance Use Disorders Among […]lts Aged 18 or Older.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. June 29, 2017. Accessed July 6, 2019.

Groskaufmanis, Lauren. “A Culture of Alcohol Expectation.” The Chronicle. Sep 23, 2016. Accessed July 6, 2019.

Winograd, Rachel P., Littlefield, Andrew K., & Sher, Kenneth J. “Do people who “Mature Out” of drinki[…]lves as more mature?” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Feb. 2012. Accessed July 6, 2019.

Hamer, Emily. “Normalization of Stimulant Use on Campus[…] Safety Implications.” The Badger Herald. April 4, 2017. Accessed July 6, 2019.

Altschuler, Claire. “Colleges Using Sober Dorms to Combat Alcohol, Drug Addiction.” Chicago Tribune. Oct. 13, 2017. Accessed July 6, 2019.

Association of Recovery in Higher Education. “Starting a CRP.” 2019. Accessed July 6, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with 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 providers.