By Pat Matuszak

Over the years, one college complaint has echoed across addiction prevention and recovery communities from students and parents alike: Campus life encourages a mindset where alcohol and drug use is considered part of the ritual of becoming an adult.

Student walking on campusThe Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery (HECAOD) at Ohio State University notes, “Research suggests that no environment is more hostile than a college/university campus for young adults in recovery from a substance use disorder.”1

Studies show that college students experiment with addictive substances at higher levels than the general population. In 2016, 24.3 percent of college students reported using illicit drugs in the past month, compared to 10.6 percent of Americans age 12 and older.2,3

Much of this has to do with the spirit of experimentation that often accompanies going to college. During this time, students are outside of parental supervision for the first time, want to find out everything for themselves instead of blindly taking on their parents’ and teachers’ values, question everything to see how it stands up in the real world, and learn what it means to be an adult.

But campus traditions that have been supported by colleges themselves — such as party and sports weekends — also contribute to excessive drinking and drug use among students. Fraternities and sororities have hit the spotlight in recent years as tragic overdose deaths followed their activities. Many parents who remember substance use as part of their college experience are asking for colleges to change their community traditions and supervise social groups like fraternities, making their leadership accountable as never before.4

The bottom line is that colleges are businesses, just like airlines, medical clinics, and shopping malls. If parents who pay to send their child to college find the school doesn’t value safety, a positive social atmosphere and a good return on their investment, they’ll look at the competition instead. Imagine if pilots at an airline crashed planes 10 percent of the time instead of arriving safely — they’d be out of business immediately.

Colleges are not ignorant about competition in this area. They know that many parents are looking for a safe college experience for their children as much as an elite degree.5 This consumerist generation of informed parents shops for an institution that delivers in all areas. Platitudes and slogans will not suffice. They check reviews in every area of college life to see if there’s positive feedback from other parents and students. Drug and alcohol abuse prevention is often a key concern on their checklist.6

Because of this push, many colleges now feature safety pages on their website and literature that outlines measures they’re taking, rather than simply expecting parents to trust them as a legacy institution.5 These prevention efforts may include the following:

  • Collegiate recovery communities (CRCs) and collegiate recovery programs (CRPs)7
  • Sober living options on campus7
  • Substance-free activities and physical spaces dedicated to sober social gatherings8
  • Substance abuse reporting, testing and monitoring with Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS)8
  • Peer support and mentoring programs7
  • Counseling services7
  • Dedicated staff and resources to support recovery activities7
  • Faculty training programs in substance abuse prevention8
  • Heightened classroom building and dorm security8
  • On-campus mutual support groups and/or partnerships with off-campus chapters7
  • Strict rules about beverage service at campus events8
  • Holding student groups, such as fraternities, responsible for enforcing underage drinking laws8
  • Initiating “social host” laws to hold adults accountable for allowing underage drinking on their property8
  • Enforcing laws for driver’s license suspension of underage drinkers8
  • Raising the minimum legal drinking age8

Many schools are blocking alcoholic beverage companies from sponsorship of sports, college publications and other campus events. Alternative fraternal groups founded on sober living are being encouraged, and traditional sororities and fraternities are being held more accountable if they encourage substance abuse. Both on- and off-campus parties are being monitored more frequently and held accountable if students are given access to abused substances. Adults who own bars, restaurants or homes where parties take place are more often facing legal prosecution when they serve alcohol to minors.8

While there’s still room to improve, the current level of awareness and action is more than ever before. Thanks in part to a surge of millions of dollars in grants and funding for programs, facilities and staff, new initiatives launch and grow every year. Some of the successful groups include:

  • The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery1
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-Step fellowships9
  • CollegeAIM — the College Alcohol Intervention Matrix10
  • Private practice addiction psychologists9
  • Drug and alcohol therapy groups9
  • Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention groups9
  • Collegiate recovery communities11
  • Collegiate recovery programs9

All of this activity has been built around giving students the opportunity to live a sober lifestyle on campus. It gives them a choice to be substance-free as they pursue their education and look to a bright future. As data on which efforts work best is collected, colleges can enhance programs that show the most promise. Eventually, the college community will evolve, and a more positive mindset regarding healthy living during students’ on-campus years will benefit future generations.


1Recovery on Campus.” Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery, Accessed February 16, 2018.

2 Schulenberg, JE, et al. Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975–2016: Volume II, College students and adults ages 19–55. Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan, July 2017.

3 Ahrnsbrak, Rebecca, et al. Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, September 2017.

4 Svrluga, Susan. “’Penn State University Failed Our Son’: After a fraternity hazing death, parents call for dramatic change.” The Washington Post, June 2, 2017.

5Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery: Families.” Ohio State University, 2018.

6 Greene, Howard and Matthew. “What Families Think: Campus Safety and Violence.” University Business, April 1, 2008.

7 2017 Census and Definitions for Recovery Support in Higher Education. Transforming Youth Recovery, March 2018.

8 Wilson, David. Behavioral Health Among College Students Information & Resource Kit. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2015.

9 Frank, Jeremy, and Devin Reaves. “Addiction Counselors Want Colleges and Others to Do More in Fighting Opioid Crisis.” The Inquirer, December 21, 2017.

10College Drinking: Changing the Culture.”, Accessed February 16, 2018.

11 Ward, Allison. “Those in Recovery Find Oasis in Ohio State Program” The Columbus Dispatch, May 4, 2016.