College Drinking—Facts for Parents
Harmful and underage college drinking are significant public health problems, and they exact an enormous toll on the lives of students on campuses across the United States.
Drinking at college has become a ritual that students often see as an integral part of their higher education experience. Some students come to college with established drinking habits, and the college environment can lead to a problem. According to a national survey, almost 53 percent of full-time college students ages 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the past month and about 33 percent engaged in binge drinking during that same time frame.1 For the purposes of this survey, binge drinking was defined as consuming 5 drinks or more on one occasion for males and 4 drinks or more for females. However, some college students drink at least twice that amount, a behavior that is often called high-intensity drinking.2
Consequences of Harmful and Underage College Drinking
Drinking affects college students, their families, and college communities.
The most recent statistics from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) estimate that about 1,519 college students ages 18 to 24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes.3
The most recent NIAAA statistics estimate that about 696,000 students ages 18 to 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.4
Although estimating the number of alcohol-related sexual assaults is exceptionally challenging—since sexual assault is typically underreported—researchers have confirmed a long-standing finding that 1 in 5 college women experience sexual assault during their time in college.5 A majority of sexual assaults in college involve alcohol or other substances.6,7 Research continues in order to better understand the relationships between alcohol and sexual assault among college students. Additional national survey data are needed to better estimate the number of alcohol-related assaults.
About one in four college students report experiencing academic difficulties from drinking, such as missing class or getting behind in schoolwork.8
In a national survey, college students who binge drank alcohol at least three times per week were roughly six times more likely to perform poorly on a test or project as a result of drinking (40 percent vs. 7 percent) than students who drank but never binged. The students who binge drank were also five times more likely to have missed a class (64 percent vs. 12 percent).9
Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
Around 9 percent of full-time college students ages 18 to 22 meet the criteria for past-year AUD, according to a 2019 national survey.10
Other consequences include suicide attempts, health problems, injuries, unsafe sexual behavior, and driving under the influence of alcohol, as well as vandalism, damage, and involvement with the police.
Factors Affecting Student Drinking
Although some students come to college already having some experience with alcohol, certain aspects of college life—such as unstructured time, widespread availability of alcohol, inconsistent enforcement of underage drinking laws, and limited interactions with parents and other adults—can lead to the problem. In fact, college students have higher binge-drinking rates and a higher incidence of driving under the influence of alcohol than their noncollege 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 or 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.
An often-overlooked preventive factor involves the continuing influence of parents. Research shows that students who choose not to drink often do so because their parents discussed alcohol use and its adverse consequences with them.
Choosing the Right College
Like many parents, you may be doing some research on colleges and universities. You've probably looked into:
- 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 alcohol misuse. 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 overdose. 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 more than 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 overdose 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, Center for Behavioral Statistics and Quality. 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Table 6.21B—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. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt29394/NSDUHDetailedTabs2019/NSDUHDetTabsSect6pe2019.htm#tab6-21b. Accessed January 11, 2021.
2 Hingson, R.W.; Zha, W.; and White, A.M. Drinking beyond the binge threshold: Predictors, consequences, and changes in the U.S. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 52(6):717–727, 2017. PMID: 28526355
3 Methodology for arriving at estimates described in Hingson, R.; Zha, W.; and Smyth, D. Magnitude and Trends in Heavy Episodic Drinking, Alcohol-Impaired Driving, and Alcohol-Related Mortality and Overdose Hospitalizations Among Emerging Adults of College Ages 18-24 in the United States, 1998-2014. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 78(4):540–548, 2017. PMID: 28728636
4 Methodology for arriving at estimates described in Hingson, R.; Heeren, T.; Winter, M.; and Wechsler, H. 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
5 Muehlenhard, C.; Peterson, Z.; Humphreys, T.; Jozkowski, K. Evaluating the one-in-five statistic: Women’s risk of sexual assault while in college. The Journal of Sex Research 54(4–5):549–576, 2017. PMID: 28375675
6 Carey, K.B.; Durney, S.E.; Shepardson, R.L.; Carey, M.P. Incapacitated and forcible rape of college women: Prevalence across the first year. Journal of Adolescent Health 56(6):678–680, 2015. PMID: 26003585
7 Lawyer, S.; Resnick, H.; Bakanic, V.; Burkett, T.; Kilpatrick, D. Forcible, drug-facilitated, and incapacitated rape and sexual assault among undergraduate women. Journal of American College Health 58(5):453–460, 2010. PMID: 20304757
8 Wechsler, H.; Lee, J.E.; Kuo, M.; et al. Trends in college binge drinking during a period of increased prevention efforts. Findings from 4 Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study Surveys: 1993-2001. Journal of American College Health 50(5):203–217, 2002. PMID: 11990979
9 Presley, C.A.; and Pimentel, E.R. The introduction of the heavy and frequent drinker: A proposed classification to increase accuracy of alcohol assessments in postsecondary educational settings. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 67(2):324–331, 2006. PMID: 16562416
10 SAMHSA, Center for Behavioral Statistics and Quality. 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Table 6.23B—Alcohol Use Disorder in Past Year among Persons Aged 18 to 22, by College Enrollment Status and Demographic Characteristics: Percentages, 2018 and 2019. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt29394/NSDUHDetailedTabs2019/NSDUHDetTabsSect6pe2019.htm#tab6-23b. Accessed September 17, 2020.
11 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Defining binge drinking. What Colleges Need to Know Now. https://www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov/media/1College_Bulletin-508_361C4E.pdf. Accessed October 22, 2021.