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How College Can Create Alcoholics?

College is generally perceived as a period of time where young people can better themselves intellectually, develop their social networks, and prepare for a joyful and prosperous future as adults. Unfortunately, the social and academic pressures of college life can also cause many students to turn to substance abuse for relief. 

Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance on college campuses. Regular alcohol abuse can lead to a variety of consequences that can damage a student’s social, academic, and legal standing. Often these consequences are life-threatening.

College alcohol abuse is often normalized, with parents often mistakenly believing that the alcohol abuse will end after graduation. However, individuals who develop alcohol use disorders generally struggle to pick their lives back up when they graduate. 

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that 20% of all college students meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Understanding why this happens and what treatment options are available is essential to helping your college-aged child.

Why is Alcoholism in College Students So Common?

There are many reasons why people develop alcohol use disorders. Current research points to a combination of genetic factors and environmental factors. The genetic factors are relatively clear-cut: individuals with a history of substance use disorders in the family are at the highest risk of developing one themselves. 

Environmental factors, however, have a major impact. Individuals who suffer from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as abuse or neglect, have a much higher likelihood of abusing alcohol later in life. Other environmental factors include how early in their life a person begins drinking, their interpersonal circumstances, and their mental health. Alcohol abuse on college campuses occurs in part because of the nature of the college environment. But why do college students drink?

Peer Pressure and College Alcohol Abuse

Most highschool students look forward to college as a time when they can let loose. Media depictions of college life often paint a picture of wild parties, drug experimentation, and crazy misadventures. Because many students entering college have this expectation, the result is that many colleges do indeed have party cultures. This is true in particular for colleges where fraternities and sororities have major presences. 

Colleges where athletics is a major part of the culture also tend to have party cultures. Alcohol at college football games, for instance, is common. For many college students, and even for many parents, alcohol and drug use in college is seen as normal.

Academic Pressure and College Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol and drug use in college often occurs because college is just an academically rigorous environment. For many students who are coming out of highschool, this might be their first exposure to intellectually demanding classes that require students to manage their own time. Doing well in college matters to students, because undergraduate success is often perceived as a means to further success in adulthood, whether that means graduate school or an entry level job in a professional field. These academic pressures can easily become overwhelming to students who are ill-prepared for them. 

College alcohol consumption can be a way for students to experience relief from these stressors, or it can function as a way of celebrating and letting off steam after getting through a stressful period such as final exams. Unfortunately, regular alcohol abuse over time leads to cognitive impairment, emotional fragility, and worse time management, making it even more difficult for students to keep up. As a result, alcohol abuse and academic pressure can become a self-defeating cycle for many undergraduate students.

Dangers of College Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse in college can, at its worst, lead to a wide variety of potentially life-threatening consequences, and at its best it can severely harm a student’s future. Research published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism shows that 90% of all drinking that young people do is classified as binge drinking. 

Binge drinking, by far the most dangerous type of drinking, involves consuming a high quantity of alcoholic drinks in a short period of time. This type of drinking, which is widely encouraged on college campuses, is responsible for the greatest portion of alcohol-related harms. Some of the many consequences that result from alcohol abuse on college campuses include:

  • Death due to driving under the influence
  • College sexual assault
  • Physical violence
  • Criminal acts, leading to legal consequences
  • Prodigious spending habits, leading to debt
  • Physical injuries while drinking
  • Missing classes, poor academic performance, dropping out of school
  • Interpersonal problems with friends and family
  • Increased risk for developing alcohol addiction, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD)

Rehab Programs for College Students

Alcoholism in college students is not as rare as some young people believe. In fact, 20% of all college students reportedly suffer from alcohol use disorder. This means that they have begun to experience some of the devastating consequences of alcohol abuse and, no matter how much they wish to stop their behavior, they are unable to manage their own drinking habits. 

Enrolling in an outpatient alcohol treatment program can help people at any age. Young people who have just begun to experience the consequences of excessive drinking can prevent their alcohol use disorder from worsening by seeking treatment early. Outpatient programs for alcohol provide college students with the tools they need to get sober, maintain their sobriety, and succeed in their college endeavors. Best of all, for young people who tend to place a high value on their peer groups, they’ll have a chance to develop a strong sober social support network.

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Written By: Linda Whiteside


Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson


Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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