College Drinking Fact Sheet

in Alcohol
Olivia Pennelle
Published Apr 17, 2020
college drinking facts

While underage college drinking may seem like a rite of passage for young adults attending college, it can cause significant harm and lead to long-term implications for a young person with their whole life ahead of them.

According to the National Institute of Health on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), harmful underage drinking is a significant public health problem that impacts the development of the brain, as well as students’ mental well-being and academic success.

The college environment increases the likelihood of binge drinking and potentially more harmful drinking, leading to alcohol use disorder. Students often find themselves in a culture that encourages binge drinking, and many see drinking as a large component of their college experience.

national survey on drug use and health, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), revealed:

  • Almost 60 percent of college students aged 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the past month, compared to 48 percent of young adults the same age who are not in college
  • Almost 66 percent of them had engaged in binge drinking during that month, compared to 32 percent of young adults the same age
  • 12.5 percent of college students aged 18 to 22 reported heavy alcohol use in the past month, compared with 8.5 percent of persons the same age
  • 20 percent of students — over 300,000 young adults — meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder

There are various types of harmful drinking, such as binge drinking and alcohol use disorder.

What is binge drinking?

According to the NIAAA, binge drinking is defined as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically occurs after four drinks for women and five drinks for men over about two hours.

The factors contributing to binge drinking in college include unstructured time, the widespread availability of alcohol, lack of enforcement of underage drinking laws, limited supervision, peer influence, expectations of and stressors on students, and social pressures.

According to the National Council of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, the potential consequences of binge drinking include academic problems, driving under the influence, assault, sexual abuse, injury, property damage, unsafe sex, health problems, suicide attempts, involvement with the police, and death.

A study was conducted to determine the magnitude and trends of alcohol-related consequences stemming from harmful and underage drinking. It revealed that each year among college students between the ages of 18 to 24:

  • 1,825 died from unintentional alcohol-related injuries, including car accidents
  • Almost 10 percent of students drove under the influence of alcohol
  • 696,000 (12%) were struck or assaulted by another drinking college student
  • 97,000 (2%) were victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape
  • 1 in 4 students reported that drinking affected their studies, including missing classes, falling behind performing poorly in tests, and receiving lower grades
  • Students who binge drank three times a week or more were around six times more likely to perform poorly on a test and five times more likely to have missed a class

Alcohol poisoning

According to the NIAAA, thousands of students are taken to the emergency room each year with alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning occurs when high levels of alcohol suppress vital systems in the body as it struggles to expel toxins. This is a serious condition that can result in permanent brain damage and even death. Signs of alcohol poisoning are:

  • Mental confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia) and pale skin

If a person is showing any of these signs, they should seek immediate medical attention and call 911.

What is alcohol use disorder?

Persistent binge drinking can lead to alcohol use disorder (AUD). According to the NIAAA, AUD is defined as “a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using.”

Alcohol use disorder is a serious medical condition affecting an estimated 14.8 million Americans (SAMHSA, 2019). According to the NIAAA, an estimated 88,000 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

20 percent of college students meet the criteria for AUD, which are:

  • Drinking more or longer than intended
  • Wanting to cut down or stop drinking, tried and couldn’t
  • Spending a lot of time drinking, being sick from drinking, or getting over the aftereffects of drinking
  • Experiencing strong urges or cravings for alcohol
  • Finding that drinking interfered with day-to-day responsibilities, such as job, home, or school
  • Continuing to drink in spite of its interference with life
  • Cutting back on once-pleasurable activities in order to drink
  • More than once getting into situations after drinking that caused a person to get hurt, such as unsafe sex, driving, using machinery, or walking in a dangerous area
  • Continuing to drink despite feeling sick, anxious or depressed
  • Having to drink more to experience the same effect
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms once the alcohol wears off, such as sweating, shaking, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sensing things that are not there

If you or your loved one is experiencing any of these symptoms, you should seek help from a medical professional who can perform an assessment and recommend treatment options.

Stressors affecting student drinking

Attending college can be extremely stressful, especially with coercion from peers to binge drink, impending deadlines, lack of sleep, and feeling completely overwhelmed.

According to the American Psychological Association, 61 percent of college students seeking counseling report experiencing anxiety, and the American Institute of Stress reports that eight out of 10 students suffer from frequent stress. A further study showed that having parents with alcohol use disorder was a significant predictor of stress for college students.

Despite nearly 20 percent of students suffering with AUD, only 1.2 percent received treatment for it.

Student pressures at the start of the academic year, as well as social pressures, mean that the first six weeks of freshman year are the most vulnerable time for students to begin binge drinking and suffer its related consequences. According to NIAAA, students attending schools with strong Greek systems and prominent athletic programs are said to drink more heavily than students in other types of schools. What’s more, students living in fraternities and sororities consume the highest amount of alcohol. Students who live with their families have the lowest level of alcohol consumption.

While college can lead to stress and feelings of being overwhelmed, it is entirely possible for students to manage that stress effectively. Solutions include prioritizing sleep, meditation and breathing exercises, using planning tools and schedulers, finding mutual aid groups, exercising, practicing yoga, eating well, and finding a creative outlet.

Solutions for college drinking

The best approach toward reducing problematic drinking is implementing college-wide strategies:

  • Changing cultural perceptions and behaviors around alcohol use
  • Reducing the availability of alcohol to people under 21
  • Improving law enforcement
  • Increasing access to treatment and recovery support services for students, such as collegiate recovery programs (see the Association of Recovery in Higher Education)

NIH has produced an interactive guide called CollegeAIM, a resource designed to help schools and colleges address underage student drinking. It lists many alcohol interventions, counseling options, and policies. More information can be found here.

College drinking causes serious and sometimes fatal consequences. Don’t let harmful drinking get in the way of your life’s potential. Take action now. Call us today to see how we can help you or your loved one overcome their problem with alcohol and/or drugs: 866-358-6446.