Calculating the High in Higher Education

It’s the rare parent who can send a child off to college without at least some trepidation. After all, this is usually the first time their young adult will be making decisions without Mom or Dad looking on — and this decision-making will happen in an environment that has come to seem virtually synonymous with drugs and alcohol.
College Campus Filled with Students

But just how common is substance use on campus these days?

The Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (CBHSQ), a division of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, decided to add up the numbers, pulling together information from the 2011-2014 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health and creating an analysis of average drug and alcohol use among full- and part-time college students ages 18 to 22.

It’s a vital picture to paint, the CBHSQ noted in the report, because “substance use constitutes one of the most serious public health issues for young people in the United States, creating negative health, social, and economic consequences for adolescents, their families, and communities, and for the nation as a whole.”

Students were asked about nine categories of substances: sedatives, tranquilizers, nonmedical use of prescription painkillers, stimulants, inhalants, hallucinogens, heroin, cocaine (including crack), and marijuana, and the report evaluated the results in terms of first-time use, past month use and also from the vantage point of an average day on campus within the past year.

Here’s what the CBHSQ report concluded, by the numbers:

Full-Time Students

In the month before being surveyed, among a representative sampling of the nation’s annual average of 9 million full-time college students ages 18 to 22:

  • Well over half, 5.4 million: drank alcohol
  • More than a third, 3.5 million: engaged in binge drinking
  • 2 million, or 13.2%: drank heavily
  • About 1 in 5, close to 2 million: used an illicit drug

Among those drinkers, the numbers averaged out to consuming alcohol on 6.4 days out of the month and consuming 4.1 drinks on the days they did drink.

During the past year, on an average day:

  • 2 million: drank alcohol
  • 703,759: used marijuana
  • 11,338: used cocaine
  • 9,808: used hallucinogens
  • 4,570: used heroin
  • 3,341: used inhalants

Also calculated was first-time substance use. The report found:

  • 9%: drank alcohol for the first time in the past year
  • 6%: used illicit drugs for the first time in the past year

On an average day in the past year, first-time substance use among full-time students looked like this:

  • 2,179: drank alcohol
  • 1,326: used an illicit drug
  • 1,299: used marijuana
  • 649: used hallucinogens
  • 559: used prescription-type pain relievers nonmedically
  • 447: used cocaine
  • 415: used licit or illicit stimulants nonmedically
  • 166: used inhalants
  • 39: used methamphetamine
  • 19: used heroin

Part-Time Students

Also analyzed were the substance use patterns of part-time college students ages 18 to 22, who number an annual average of 2 million. In the month before being surveyed:

  • Well over half, 1.1 million: drank alcohol
  • More than a third, 707,000: engaged in binge drinking
  • 207,000, or 10.4%: drank heavily
  • 448,000, or 22.5%: used an illicit drug

Among those drinkers, the numbers averaged out to consuming alcohol on 6.4 days out of the month and consuming 3.8 drinks on the days they did drink.

During the past year, on an average day:

  • 239,212: drank alcohol
  • 195,020: used marijuana
  • 3,629: used cocaine
  • 3,239: used hallucinogens
  • 2,590: used heroin
  • 991: used inhalants

First-time substance use among part-time students:

  • 9%: drank alcohol for the first time in the past year
  • 8%: used illicit drugs for the first time in the past year

On an average day in the past year, first-time substance use among part-time students looked like this:

  • 453: drank alcohol
  • 174: used an illicit drug
  • 153: used marijuana
  • 129: used prescription-type pain relievers nonmedically
  • 117: used hallucinogens
  • 80: used cocaine
  • 53: used inhalants
  • 52: used licit or illicit stimulants nonmedically
  • 19: used methamphetamine
  • 10: used heroin

Educating Your Student

Although the numbers represent averages rather than exact totals, the report paints an enlightening picture of the prevalence of drug and alcohol use on college campuses. It’s information parents can use to talk to their student about the realities of the temptations they will face, the dangers that substance use can represent and the need to reach out for help if problems do arise.

The report also illustrates the flip side: a majority of students are not using drugs or alcohol. So while it may seem to your student as though “everyone is doing it,” they aren’t. And your student shouldn’t fear missing out if his or her college experience is a sober one.

Posted on June 23rd, 2016

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