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College Drinking—Facts for Parents

The consequences of harmful and underage college drinking are more significant, more destructive, and more costly than many parents realize—affecting students whether or not they drink. But parents can continue to be a primary influence in students’ lives by making sure they know about potential harms, helping them choose the right college, staying involved, and getting help if needed.

Drinking at college has become a ritual that students often see as an integral part of their higher education experience. Many students come to college with established drinking habits, and the college environment can exacerbate the problem. According to a national survey, almost 60 percent of college students ages 18–22 drank alcohol in the past month,1 and almost 2 out of 3 of them engaged in binge drinking during that same timeframe.2

Consequences of Harmful and Underage College Drinking

Drinking affects college students, their families, and college communities at large. Researchers estimate that each year:

What is "binge drinking?"

Many college alcohol problems are related to binge drinking. Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men—in about 2 hours.

Drinking this way can pose serious health and safety risks, including car crashes, drunk-driving arrests, sexual assaults, and injuries. Over the long term, frequent binge drinking can damage the liver and other organs.


Note: One U.S. standard “drink” equals 12 fl. oz. regular beer, 1.5 fl. oz. (1 “shot”) of 80-proof liquor, or a 5 fl. oz. glass of wine.

Deaths

About 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor-vehicle crashes.3

Assaults

About 696,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.4

Sexual Assaults

About 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.4

Academic Problems

About 1 in 4 college students report academic consequences from drinking, including missing class, falling behind in class, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall.5

In a national survey of college students, binge drinkers who consumed alcohol at least 3 times per week were roughly 6 times more likely than those who drank but never binged to perform poorly on a test or project as a result of drinking (40 percent vs. 7 percent) and 5 times more likely to have missed a class (64 percent vs. 12 percent).6

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

About 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for an AUD.7

Other Consequences

These include suicide attempts, health problems, injuries, unsafe sex, and driving under the influence of alcohol, as well as vandalism, property damage, and involvement with the police.

Factors Affecting Student Drinking

Although the majority of students come to college already having some experience with alcohol, certain aspects of college life, such as unstructured time, the widespread availability of alcohol, inconsistent enforcement of underage drinking laws, and limited interactions with parents and other adults, can intensify the problem. In fact, college students have higher binge-drinking rates and a higher incidence of driving under the influence of alcohol than their non-college peers.

The first 6 weeks of freshman year are a vulnerable time for heavy drinking and alcohol-related consequences because of student expectations and social pressures at the start of the academic year.

Factors related to specific college environments also are significant. Students attending schools with strong Greek systems and with prominent athletic programs tend to drink more than students at other types of schools. In terms of living arrangements, alcohol consumption is highest among students living in fraternities and sororities and lowest among commuting students who live with their families.

Choosing the Right College

Like many parents, you may be doing some research on colleges and universities. You've probably looked into:

  • Academics
  • Course offerings
  • Athletic facilities
  • Housing conditions
  • School reputation

During your research, it's essential to remember a key issue, one that influences college students' quality of life every day: the culture of drinking at colleges in the United States.

An "Animal House" environment may seem exciting to students at first, but nothing affects health, safety, and academic performance more than a culture of excessive drinking. Many of the negative consequences associated with college alcohol abuse affect students who are not drinking—and these are serious consequences: sexual assault, violence, vandalism, loss of sleep, and caring for friends and roommates in life-threatening states of alcohol poisoning. There are a number of ways to investigate whether the schools you're considering are taking this problem seriously. Be sure that each school has created solid alcohol policies and is enforcing underage drinking laws. This site has made it easy for you to get this information for hundreds of colleges and universities in the United States.

  • Visit our College Alcohol Policies page to find an interactive map of college alcohol policies throughout the United States.
  • Be familiar with alcohol-related problems facing schools, and what they are doing to address them. Strong leadership from a concerned college president, in combination with an involved campus community and a comprehensive program of evidence-based strategies, can help address harmful student drinking.
    • Ask school administrators—as well as other students or parents—what the campus “party” environment is like, and whether there are any major problems with alcohol. (To see some recent college drinking-related headlines, check out our In the News page.)
    • Ask what evidence-based strategies schools are using to address student drinking. NIAAA has developed a guide for schools—CollegeAIM, or the College Alcohol Intervention Matrix—that rates nearly 60 alcohol interventions in terms of effectiveness, costs, and other factors.

What Can Parents Do?

An often-overlooked preventive factor involves the continuing influence of parents—even into the college years. Research shows that students who choose not to drink often do so because their parents discussed alcohol use and its adverse consequences with them.

Parents can help by:

  • Talking with students about the dangers of harmful and underage college drinking—whether it be its impact on their classwork, relationships, or safety—or its effects on their friends or community.
  • Making sure students read and understand the school’s alcohol policy—as well as knowing other consequences for breaking the law—prior to the start of the school year. (See the College Alcohol Policies map.)
  • Providing ongoing support to students during the school year, especially the first 6 weeks of the fall semester when students are especially vulnerable.
  • Learning about and supporting the school’s alcohol prevention efforts, such as ensuring students take part in alcohol-education programs.
  • Understanding the school’s rules for notifying parents in the event of a problem.
  • Making sure students know signs of alcohol poisoning or an alcohol-related problem, and how to get help—for themselves or a friend or roommate. (See Getting Help on this site, or ask the college for on-campus resources.)

For more information, visit What Parents Need to Know about College Drinking.


1 SAMHSA. 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Table 6.88B—Alcohol Use in the Past Month among Persons Aged 18 to 22, by College Enrollment Status and Demographic Characteristics: Percentages, 2013 and 2014. Available at: http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-DetTabs2014/NSDUH-DetTabs2014.htm#tab6-88b

2 SAMHSA. 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Table 6.89B—Binge Alcohol Use in the Past Month among Persons Aged 18 to 22, by College Enrollment Status and Demographic Characteristics: Percentages, 2013 and 2014. Available at: http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-DetTabs2014/NSDUH-DetTabs2014.htm#tab6-89b

3 Hingson, R.W.; Zha, W.; and Weitzman, E.R. Magnitude of and trends in alcohol-related mortality and morbidity among U.S. college students ages 18–24, 1998–2005. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (Suppl. 16):12–20, 2009. PMID: 19538908 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2701090/

4 Hingson R, Heeren T, Winter M. et al. Magnitude of alcohol-related mortality and morbidity among U.S. college students ages 18–24: changes from 1998 to 2001. Annual Review of Public Health 26: 259–279, 2005. PMID: 15760289 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15760289

5 Wechsler, H.; Dowdall, G.W.; Maenner, G.; et al. Changes in binge drinking and related problems among American college students between 1993 and 1997: Results of the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study. Journal of American College Health 47(2):57–68, 1998. PMID: 9782661 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/07448489809595621

6 Thombs, D.L., Olds, R.S., Bondy, S.J., et al. Undergraduate drinking and academic performance: A prospective investigation with objective measures.Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. 2009;70(5):776–785. PMID: 19737503 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19737503

7 Blanco, C.; Okuda, M.; Wright, C. et al. Mental health of college students and their non-college-attending peers: Results from the National Epidemiologic Study on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Archives of General Psychiatry 65(12):1429–1437, 2008. PMID: 19047530 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2734947