Why College Alcoholism Is No Laughing Matter
The Sobering Truth About Student Binge Drinking (On Campus and Off)
By Luke Redd
| Last Updated April 3, 2020
Have you ever joked or bragged about college alcoholism? Have you ever proudly called yourself an "alchie" after a night of binge drinking? College students throughout the country engage in excessive drinking as a popular social pastime, so you wouldn't be alone in glamorizing the activity by using humor, seeking peer recognition, or idolizing heavy drinkers. Even if you haven't done those things yourself, you probably know students who have. Alcohol use is a major, if informal, aspect of student culture at countless colleges and universities. But its impact goes way beyond just fun and games.
When you're slamming shots, posing for drunken selfies, or trying to win a round of beer pong, it's easy to miss or ignore the fact that you may have a real problem. In college, drinking to excess can seem like a normal part of the experience—a traditional rite of passage. But abusing alcohol often leads to serious, lasting consequences. Many college students end up regretting their experiences of binge drinking on campus, in nearby bars, or in various other off-campus settings. And some students' lives end in fatal tragedy.
That's why learning more about this issue is so important. You deserve to know the facts, including how binge drinking may impact your future or the life of someone you care about. You also deserve to understand why drinking in college is so popular to begin with, as well as how you can prevent or recover from alcohol abuse.
The Stats About College Binge Drinking: Facts You Should Know
It's no secret that alcohol is one of the most commonly abused drugs in the world. It's also the most socially accepted drug. Compared to other commonly abused substances such as MDMA, amphetamines, and various narcotics, alcohol is much more freely available, thanks in large part to its legal status. According to one American survey by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), about 70 percent of people over the age of 18 drink alcohol at least once a year. And 56 percent of American adults drink alcohol at least once a month.
In the U.S., the legal age to purchase alcohol is 21, but underage drinking in college is a fact of life. (Indiana State University's Alcohol Awareness Handbook says it is estimated that the average college student drinks in excess of 34 gallons of alcohol each year. Only about 20 percent of college students do not drink at all.)
Underage consumption is legally allowed in some states—in private or in the presence of parents, teachers, or legal-age spouses. Plus, on and around many traditional college and university campuses, school policies and drinking laws are enforced inconsistently at best. Underage students often feel like they aren't at great risk of getting in trouble since the authorities may be looking the other way.
Because alcohol tends to be relatively inexpensive and easy to get, it's usually the go-to drug of choice for parties and other social events. For college students, that often means binge drinking, which is commonly defined as consuming an excessive amount of alcohol within a short period of time—resulting in a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 or higher. For women, that typically means consuming four or more standard alcoholic drinks in two hours or less. For men, it usually means consuming five or more standard drinks within that amount of time.
Of course, those numbers can vary a lot depending on a person's body weight and the alcohol content of particular drinks. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) says that in the U.S., any beverage that contains more than about 14 grams (0.5 fluid ounces) of pure alcohol is considered more than one standard drink. Examples of a standard drink include a five-ounce glass of wine (with alcohol content of 12 percent), 12 ounces of beer (with alcohol content of five percent), or a shot or mixed drink that uses a total of 1.5 fluid ounces of distilled spirits (with alcohol content of 40 percent). Keep in mind that many of today's cocktails and serving sizes include more alcohol than what is in a standard drink. With just one beverage, you may be consuming the equivalent of two or more standard drinks.
That's why few students are aware of exactly how much alcohol they consume when binge drinking. Statistics show the scale of this issue. Look at these estimates (all data from the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, unless otherwise noted):
- About 40 percent of college students get drunk on at least a monthly basis. And according to the NIAAA, nearly 60 percent of college students (between 18 and 22 years old) drink alcohol at least once a month.
- 32 percent of college students engage in heavy drinking (i.e., five or more drinks) at least once every two weeks. Some college students (12 percent) binge on 10 or more alcoholic drinks at least once every two weeks.
- 77 percent of young college-age adults are friends with people who get drunk weekly.
Why College Students Drink So Much
People drink alcohol in college for a wide variety of reasons. Chief among them is the cultural expectation—the idea that drinking is a fundamental part of the college or university experience. Younger students, especially, are often trying to fit in, project a certain image, and gain social status. Their perception may be that everyone drinks to have fun, so they should too. But why do college students drink so much alcohol?
Binge drinking in college is often driven by factors such as:
- Social anxiety
- Low self-esteem
- Intense peer expectations
- A new sense of freedom and independence
- The urge to experiment, test limits, and take risks
- A desire for admiration from other students
- A yearning for excitement, adventure, and new friendships
- A need for instant gratification
- Fear of responsibility
- The omnipresent availability of alcohol at various events
- A desire to get drunk enough to black out
- Mental health issues like depression, PTSD, or bipolar disorder
- A desire to escape from academic, social, financial, or family problems
- Lackadaisical enforcement of drinking laws and policies
- Marketing by the alcohol industry that targets college students
- Social media messages that glamorize extreme drinking
College students who join fraternities and sororities tend to be exposed to more social events where binge drinking takes place. Heavy drinking also tends to be more prominent at colleges and universities with major athletic programs that produce a constant stream of sporting events, which draw large crowds and provide ready-made excuses for alcohol-fuelled parties and celebrations. A lot of students also look forward to spring break as a chance to get away, drink heavily, and abandon their inhibitions.
It's important to note that many of today's students are motivated more by getting drunk than simply using alcohol to socialize during their time in college. Beer, in many cases, now takes a back seat to hard liquor as students seek to get drunk more quickly—often before arriving at a social activity, concert, or sporting event.
11 Risks of Binge Drinking: Consequences That Can Wreck Your Life
College drug use creates many problems for individual students and the wider community. Frequently, the effects aren't just confined to the users themselves. When it comes to alcohol abuse, college students are often caught off guard by the ramifications of their friends' or their own heavy drinking. The consequences can include:
Each year in the U.S., roughly 1,825 college and university students (aged 18 to 24) die from accidental injuries related to alcohol consumption, according to the NIAAA. Being highly inebriated makes it harder to maintain your balance and coordinate your movements. Your reflexes slow down and your senses dull. So the risk of personal injury increases significantly with each new drink you have within a short period of time.
Everything around you becomes a potential hazard or accident waiting to happen. Cuts, broken bones, muscle sprains, and head traumas are common. Some students choke on their own vomit. And some college binge drinkers become hazards to each other or cause injuries to sober bystanders.
2. Loss of control
The higher your blood alcohol concentration (BAC), the less control you have over your mental faculties. Your judgment becomes impaired, but you may not recognize it. You also become less able to communicate or defend yourself. Those are some important reasons why, each year in America, roughly 696,000 college students (aged 18 to 24) become victims of alcohol-related assault and roughly 96,000 students of the same age become victims of alcohol-related date rape or sexual assault. That's according to the NIAAA.
In addition, some students who binge drink engage in out-of-character behavior such as vandalism, theft, fighting, driving under the influence, or other types of criminal activity. (The legal consequences can be enormous.) Being highly intoxicated also makes it more likely that you'll have unprotected sex, which can lead to unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, or lasting psychological harm. To make matters worse, many students are unable to remember exactly what they did, where they were, or who they were with after a night of heavy drinking.
That's why, if you plan on going out to binge drink, it's always smart to take along a buddy who will stay sober. Never go out by yourself.
3. Poor sleep
A bad night of sleep can wreak havoc on your ability to function the next day. Sure, having a lot of alcohol in your system can make it easy to fall asleep, but the quality of your sleep is likely to be terrible. You'll probably wake up several times throughout the night or experience bouts of obstructive sleep apnea, which can deprive your body of oxygen. You'll be tired, irritable, and lack mental sharpness. You also may have trouble getting to sleep (and staying asleep) the following night or for several nights afterwards.
Since alcohol interferes with sleep so much, some college students turn to sleeping pills. But that can be a dangerous and ineffective solution. If you take alcohol with sleeping pills, you significantly increase your risk of having a terrible accident, ending up in intensive medical care, or dying. Sleeping pills add to the sedating effects of alcohol and can make you stop breathing. The combination can also make you more prone to depression or anxiety. And since sleeping pills don't produce normal sleep, you may be more prone to dangerous sleepwalking or out-of-character nighttime behavior that you won't remember.
4. Academic problems
Indiana State University's Alcohol Awareness Handbook says that just one night of binge drinking can negatively affect your mind and body for as many as three days afterwards—even when you no longer have a hangover. That's probably why the NIAAA found that about 25 percent of college and university students have had academic problems related to their alcohol use. A lot of college drinkers miss classes, fall behind on their assignments, and receive poor grades on exams.
In fact, there seems to be a strong link between alcohol consumption and lower grades. (The more drinks you have per week, the lower your overall grade point average is likely to be.) In the U.S., about 31 percent of people drop out of college within six years. Many of them drop out because of academic problems.
5. Damaged relationships
Alcohol can greatly alter your mood. It can change a good mood into a bad one or intensify an existing temper. And since it impairs your judgment, it can cause you to treat other people in ways that you ordinarily wouldn't when sober. Your alcohol-fueled mood swings or erratic behavior could lead to the end of friendships, romantic relationships, or other important associations in your social or academic life.
6. Financial problems
Beyond the fact that purchasing alcohol, in and of itself, can become very costly if you drink frequently, you also have to take into account the potential financial consequences of alcohol-related academic problems. Retaking courses or pushing your graduation ahead to a later date than intended could cost you many thousands of extra dollars. Plus, some research suggests that the average college binge drinker has about 10 percent lower odds of getting a job after graduation.
7. Mental health problems
Frequent binge drinking can greatly increase your risk of developing anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders. And many students feel a lot of shame and guilt after episodes of heavy drinking, which can lead to substantially lower self-esteem. Binge drinkers are also at greater risk of intentionally harming themselves or committing suicide.
8. Weight gain
Most alcoholic beverages contain a lot of calories. Alcohol also makes some people want to eat more food than they otherwise would. And when alcohol is in your system, the fat that's already in your body is harder to burn. So, depending on how much you exercise and how many calories you consume from other sources, you could have a difficult time trimming down or maintaining your ideal weight. Plus, even occasional binge drinking can lead to a larger midsection.
9. Physical health problems
Heavy drinking is linked to a higher risk of developing all kinds of dangerous medical conditions. For example, it can lead to problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, liver damage, kidney disease, pancreatic inflammation, brain disorders like dementia, and certain types of arthritis and cancer. It can also be extremely risky to drink a lot of alcohol while consuming other drugs, including many kinds of prescription medications.
10. Alcohol use disorder and other addictions
If you regularly engage in binge drinking, your body will develop a progressively higher tolerance to alcohol. You'll begin to need more alcohol in order to experience the same "high" you're after. That's one reason why frequent, prolonged heavy drinking can result in full-blown addiction to alcohol, also known as alcoholism or alcohol use disorder (AUD).
According to the NIAAA, it's thought that about one in five college and university students may meet the clinical criteria for alcoholism. Alcoholics often experience many of the consequences already listed, but they feel powerless to end their addiction. Even a so-called "high-functioning alcoholic" can eventually have his or her life spiral out of control. Plus, alcoholism puts you at greater risk of developing other types of addictions, including behavioral ones.
11. Death or permanent brain damage
It only takes one time: You can lose your life from binge drinking. Deaths related to alcohol poisoning occur at an average rate of about six people a day in the U.S., according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ingesting too much alcohol can suppress your ability to breathe and cause major problems with your nervous system. You may become mentally confused before you pass out, stop breathing normally, get extremely cold, and vomit (which is a choking hazard). Without immediate medical care, you can die. Even with medical attention, alcohol poisoning can cause permanent damage to your brain.
In addition to alcohol poisoning, a lot of binge drinkers die from accidental drowning or injuries sustained from falling or getting hit by vehicles. One study found that among college students, the risk of dying from an alcohol-related cause tends to be greatest for males and members of Greek organizations. Most deaths occur when binge drinkers are alone after a period of heavy alcohol consumption.
Signs of Alcohol Abuse in College Students
Since drinking is so prevalent among students, it can sometimes be hard to recognize alcohol abuse on college campuses. What's normal? What's not normal? When is it time to intervene? In college, drug abuse can fly under the radar if you don't know the red flags. So here are some of the patterns of behavior to look for. A college student may have a drinking problem if he or she:
- Exhibits unusual changes in personality or behavior
- Seems to have an obsession with alcohol
- Constructs most of his or her social life around drinking
- Drinks in order to get a buzz or get drunk before parties or other events even begin
- Shows a lack of ability to stop at one or two drinks
- Vomits almost every time he or she drinks
- Blacks out or loses his or her memory when consuming alcohol
- Shows aggression or extreme emotion when drinking
- Has sex with people but can't remember their names or what they look like
- Frequently wets the bed
College students with alcoholic parents or any kind of family history of alcoholism are often genetically or psychologically predisposed to alcohol abuse. Awareness of that fact can help you gauge the risk and take steps to prevent a harmful addiction.
Prevention and Recovery
When it comes to ending the abuse of alcohol, prevention is always preferable to trying to solve the problem after it starts. But even though this problem has affected college students for several decades, many schools are still struggling to find a solution. Plus, although a lot of colleges and universities have clear policies about underage drinking and alcohol use on campus, many of them are lenient in enforcing those rules. They may fear conflict with alumni and boosters who support long-standing traditions that often include drinking. They may resist approaches that involve too much policing of students. Or they may not have people with the expertise to get local business owners and community leaders on board with new or existing prevention measures.
Better enforcement of existing laws and policies has been shown to change student behavior. But college students can and should take responsibility for their own actions and well-being. Here's how to drink responsibly and avoid the problems that come with abusing alcohol:
- Be aware of high-risk events and situations. Did you know that the first month or two of freshman year is one of the most dangerous times for a college student to binge drink? New students are trying to get oriented and establish friendships, making them extra vulnerable to pressure from their peers. But other examples of high-risk situations include large parties with uninvited guests, pledge events at fraternity and sorority houses, and tailgating celebrations before or after sporting events.
- Keep the focus on socializing, not on drinking. If your main reason to drink is to get drunk, then you're already well down the road toward alcoholism. Make it your goal to enjoy the company of other people, using alcohol as merely a small part of the fun—the icing on the cake.
- Understand your limitations. Have you ever lost control when consuming alcohol? Do you know how much you can handle before getting to that point? Everyone's body is different. It's crucial that you know how your own body reacts to certain amounts of alcohol. If you don't have a firm understanding of how much you can drink without suffering ill effects, experiment at home first (in the presence of a sober and responsible adult). Then, when you go out, always drink under your limit.
- Enlist a buddy and plan ahead. Arrange to have a designated driver, a cab, or some other way of getting home before you go out to drink. And always take a friend along who will stay sober and keep careful watch over you and your drinks. Make sure your friend knows your limit and won't let you go over it. In addition, while you're still sober, make sure your friend knows what you're willing or not willing to do, especially when it comes to hooking up with other people.
- Don't gulp. Sip instead. The faster you consume alcoholic beverages, the more quickly you become intoxicated. For many college students, that's the goal. But chugging or gulping is dangerous because it can impair your judgment and make you lose control without giving you a chance to realize how intoxicated you've become.
- Space your drinks out. Consuming alcoholic drinks one after the other is a sure-fire way to become more intoxicated than you intended. A better approach is to have a glass of water or a virgin cocktail in between every alcoholic beverage you drink. That way, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) won't spike so quickly, and you'll stand a better chance of staying under your limit.
- Don't drink on an empty stomach. Eating food when you drink will make your body absorb the alcohol more slowly, allowing you to stay in full control longer. Choose food options that are low in sugar and high in protein.
- Avoid mixing caffeine or other stimulants with alcohol. According to the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, nearly 30 percent of the alcoholic drinks consumed by college students contain caffeine. It's popular to mix energy drinks with alcohol or to consume them before or during a night of drinking. But stimulants like caffeine and amphetamines like Adderall can make it hard to feel the effects of alcohol until you have a dangerously high BAC. They make it more likely that you'll over-consume alcohol. In fact, mixing energy drinks with alcohol has been shown to increase a person's chances of becoming dependent on alcohol.
- Refuse a drink if you don't want one. Don't allow yourself to get pressured into accepting any alcoholic beverages if you're not ready for them. Insist on something non-alcoholic, even if your only option is water or ice. Also, be skeptical of any drinks you aren't familiar with or didn't see being made. In many cocktails, especially sweet ones, it can be hard to taste the alcohol.
Prevention is key. But what if you or a student you care about already has a drinking problem? Is it possible to stop binge drinking after you've become dependent on it? The answer is yes.
Many college students are able to overcome their dependencies on alcohol. But it requires support and a willingness to change. Thankfully, a lot of help is available. The sooner you seek help, the more likely it is that you will recover.
Find treatment for alcohol addiction in your area. Seek out self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Or find a counselor, therapist, or clinical psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy. Ultimately, you may need to try a variety of approaches in order to stop drinking completely.
Never give up. Always believe in yourself. You deserve to become the person you truly want to be.