Op-Ed: Confronting Campus Substance Use

By Michael Poliakoff and John P. Howe III, MD / January 13, 2020

Leadership needs to look beyond the tragic headlines in order to avoid them in the future

More than 1,500 college students die from alcohol-related incidents each year. Some of these tragedies make headlines when they are associated with hazing deaths, but they only represent the most visible part of a national crisis.

Urgent action is needed from higher education leaders nationwide to combat the campus drinking and drug culture that interferes with students’ success and hijacks their educational outcomes.

Families and taxpayers expect accountability from our colleges and universities, yet far too many institutions are geared for after-the-fact responses to campus tragedies that are a regular consequence of student substance use. Every member of a college governing board should be proactively engaged in matters of campus safety and student well-being.

To capture their attention and spark action, the University of Maryland School of Public Health and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) recently joined forces to create a roadmap for change. Their guide on Addressing College Drinking and Drug Use spotlights successful approaches and the pivotal research that leaders should align with while developing stronger policies to address student substance use.

The guide acknowledges that alcohol and drug education alone does not significantly deter students from dangerous substance use. Institutions need to broaden their message to make students aware that using alcohol and drugs can significantly lower their GPAs, impair their ability to focus on their studies, and drain enjoyment from their educational experience.

Research shows that nearly one-third of full-time undergraduate college students in the U.S. drink excessively. Marijuana use is on the rise among college students, perhaps due to a documented reduction in the perception of its risk, even as its THC levels have dramatically increased.

Nonmedical use of prescription stimulants almost doubled between 2008 and 2013. Nearly 70% of students who misused stimulants were also excessive drinkers, and about 70% had used marijuana during the past month.

Evidence shows that the addictive effects of alcohol and drugs alter the reward system of the brain.

For college students who are particularly heavy users, this means becoming less interested in completing assignments, going to class, or engaging with professors.

In one study of more than 40,000 students, those who drank heavily four or more times during a two-week period were 10 to 16 percentage points less likely to have an “A” average than those who did not drink.

Historically viewed as a benign by-product of college life, drinking and drug use is now accurately understood to be a major barrier to academic success, a strong factor in sexual assault, and in some cases is a predictor of long-term addiction.

While trustees cannot directly control student drug and alcohol use, they can encourage and enforce policies geared toward getting high-risk students the help they need to change their behavior.

One of the guide’s strongest recommendations is to become proactive in identifying high-risk students and steer them to appropriate interventions and treatment.

Research shows that it is rare for students to seek help on their own, which is why colleges need to make the connection.

Making screenings a routine part of campus health center visits, educating academic advisors and faculty about the correlation between substance use and academic performance, and encouraging their appropriate intervention are proven strategies for reducing the consequences of drinking and drug use.

Prevention through changing campus culture is harder than addressing individual incidents, but it is essential. Fortunately, there are evidence-based practices with records of success that both strengthen the academic mission of the college and combat the “party culture.”

Institutions must avoid sending the message that educational standards come second to recreation. Those institutions that emphasize academic purpose, provide alternatives to pro-substance activities, and “re-norm” the perception that everyone is partying can begin to change what is valued and accepted on campus.

At this moment, the Maryland Collaborative to Reduce College Drinking and Related Problems, a network of campuses in Maryland, has coordinated with local and state government to address excessive student drinking with evidence-based strategies, including reducing the availability of extreme strength alcohol.

Reducing substance use among college students is challenging but it has been done, and it is up to campus leadership, and the concerned adults in these young people’s lives, to make doing so an institutional priority.

Michael Poliakoff, PhD is President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

John P. Howe III, MD is Chairman and President of the Mary Christie Foundation and a Trustee at Boston University.