What Are the Most Commonly Abused Drugs on College Campuses?

college student studying

Updated on August 24th, 2020

In movies, books, and popular media, college students are typically portrayed as crazy party-goers who binge drink every weekend, use drugs with little regard for their health or well-being, and engage in promiscuous sexual activities. Unfortunately, for many students, this portrayal may not be too far from the truth.

While it’s a well-known fact that college students drink alcohol and experiment with drugs, often the negative consequences of college drug abuse are swept under the rug and simply accepted as a rite of passage or tradition. Although some students will choose not to engage in unhealthy binge drinking habits or drug abuse, others may fall into an extremely harmful or even deadly lifestyle.

Why Do College Students Drink Alcohol?

College students are at an increased risk of developing an alcohol abuse disorder or addiction due to a number of significant factors.

  • Increased independence – In college, students have less contact with parents and adults in general, which leaves them with more choices to make on their own. While this time provides many opportunities for personal growth, it can also be very harmful if negative choices go unchecked for a long period of time.
  • Unstructured time – Students have full control over their schedules in college. They can choose to go to class (or not) and they can choose how they want to spend their time outside of class. This large amount of unstructured time can sometimes lead to trouble, as students may choose to spend it drinking with their friends instead of studying, working, or participating in an extracurricular activity on campus.
  • Harmful living environments – College and university campuses may passively or actively promote alcohol abuse, and in many cases, students view this type of behavior as a rite of passage or something they are expected to fulfill during this time in their lives. This type of living environment fosters harmful drinking habits.
  • Availability – Older college students can easily access alcohol legally but even underage students can obtain alcohol easily through older friends and lax enforcement of underage drinking policies at local bars, clubs, and parties.
  • Social pressures – College students are especially vulnerable to peer pressure and social expectations set on campus, especially during their first semester. They may also view binge drinking activities or hazing as an effective way to make friends and be accepted into a social circle.

What Are the Negative Effects of College Alcohol Abuse?

The effects of college alcohol abuse do not go unnoticed and a large amount of research has been done to study its impact on college students. Below are some of the most common consequences of alcohol abuse among college students.

  • Poor Academic Performance: The Harvard College Alcohol Study of American undergraduate students found that college students who consume large amounts of alcohol frequently are much more likely to miss class and fall behind academically than students who occasionally drink heavily or who don’t at all.1
  • Verbal, Physical, and Sexual Assault: In 2001, more than 696,000 students were assaulted by a student under the influence of alcohol. Additionally, 97,000 students experienced alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.2
  • Development of Alcohol Addiction or Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD): According to a study from 2008, the risk of alcohol use disorders was significantly greater for college students than their non-college-attending peers. In addition, college students were significantly less likely to receive drug and alcohol addiction treatment than their peers who were not attending college.3 While psychiatric disorders are also very common among the student population, students are especially at high risk of developing alcohol abuse disorders and about 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for an AUD.4
  • Death: Unintentional alcohol-related injury deaths among college students ages 18-24 increased from 1,440 in 1998 to 1,825 in 2005 (3% increase). Within that age group, injury is the leading cause of death, with alcohol being the leading contributor. In fact, alcohol is a factor in more than 5,000 deaths in that age group each year.5

What are Study Drugs?

Study drugs is a term that is used to refer to prescription stimulants that are frequently misused by students. Other terms for these substances include smart drugs or cognitive enhancers.

These medications are intended to treat disorders like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but they are heavily abused by college students to increase concentration and stamina while studying or “cramming” for exams.

Study drugs are often easily accessible for college students and they may get them from other students who have prescriptions or they may fake symptoms to get a prescription from their doctor. After marijuana, amphetamines are the most misused drugs by college students.6 One in five college students abuse prescription stimulants.7

According to the Monitoring the Future Survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the most prevalent reason students misused amphetamines was “to help me study.” About 26 percent of Texas college students reported abusing prescription drugs and about 15 percent reported using prescription stimulants like Adderall, Vyvanse, or Concerta at least once before.8 Between 9 and 11 percent of college students nationwide misused Adderall in 2017.9

Are Study Drugs Addictive?

When they are taken as directed by a doctor, prescription stimulants are safe and effective. However, if you take more than the prescribed amount, use them with other drugs or alcohol, or take more frequent doses than necessary, study drugs can be addictive.

Prescription amphetamines are Schedule II controlled substances and chronic abuse of these drugs can cause dependence and addiction. Unfortunately, once you’re addicted, if you try to stop using, you are likely to experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms like sleep problems, fatigue, and depression. These symptoms can make getting sober very difficult.

Why Do College Students Abuse Prescription Stimulants or “Study Drugs”?

There are many reasons why college students abuse study drugs. Here are just a few of the most common ones.

  • They are overwhelmed by academic or personal stress. College can be a challenging time in life for many reasons. The pressure to get good grades, fit in socially, and live independently can all add up to create a huge amount of stress. Many students end up feeling depressed and anxious and look to prescription stimulants for help.
  • They believe study drugs will help them study. Many students abuse study drugs because they think they need the drugs to concentrate, focus, stay awake, and learn. Unfortunately, research has not proven that prescription stimulants enhance learning abilities or improve cognitive functioning.10
  • They think everyone’s doing it. It’s important to feel connected and like you’re a part of something, especially as a college student. Peer pressure can be a very powerful motivator and students may hear about how Adderall is helping their friends pass their classes and want to try it too.
  • They are curious. Teens and young adults are naturally curious as they explore the world around them. Many students decide to explore new things in college by experimenting with mind-altering substances like drugs or alcohol.

Prescription stimulants can also provide feelings of euphoria when they are abused, which can be another powerful motivator to misuse them. Other side effects of prescription stimulant abuse include:

  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Increased breathing
  • Decreased blood flow
  • Increased blood sugar
  • Opened-up breathing passages5

What Are the Most Common Drugs Abused on College Campuses?


Alcohol is by far the most commonly abused drug on college campuses, simply because it is widely accepted. Widespread college partying and binge drinking are culturally accepted in America and although many college students are of legal drinking age, many traditional freshman and sophomore college students are not. Binge drinking is also common on college campuses and it’s frequently a part of hazing rituals instigated by fraternities or sororities.


Marijuana is portrayed as a fun party drug in many movies and media and it has begun to go mainstream in America, even though recreational use is still illegal in many U.S. states. Not surprisingly, marijuana use among American college students is at its highest level in more than three decades. According to the annual National Monitoring the Future Panel Study, 43 percent of full-time college students ages 19 to 22 reported using marijuana at least once in the prior 12 months.11


Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine) is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy. It is widely known as a drug of abuse among college students because it increases alertness and concentration. It is available in immediate and extended-release tablets and it can be fatal if it’s mixed with alcohol or other stimulant drugs.12


Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine) is used to treat narcolepsy and ADHD in children. If abused, Dexedrine can cause serious health problems including seizures, heart attack, stroke, or death.7 A health condition called Raynaud’s phenomenon is also common with Dexedrine abuse and can cause extreme reactions to cold, including numb and blue fingers and toes that throb and tingle as they warm up.13


Ritalin (methylphenidate) is used to treat ADHD in children. It has also been used to treat disorders such as depression, narcolepsy, brain injury, cancer, pain, and cognitive disorders and to treat patients with human immunodeficiency virus infection. Many students misuse Ritalin for its ability to keep them awake for days at a time. Although it may provide profound mental clarity and focus for a short time, it is quickly followed by an intense crash and extreme fatigue.14


Concerta (methylphenidate) is chemically the same as Ritalin, but Concerta is the extended-release version of the drug and its effects last up to 12 hours. This drug comes in pill form, but students who misuse it may take large amounts of pills or crush and snort the pills for more powerful side effects.15 College students often take Concerta while drinking alcohol, which can mask the symptoms of alcohol poisoning and potentially be fatal.16,17


Vyvanse (lisdexamfetamine) is used to treat ADHD and binge eating disorder in adults. It is less likely to be abused than other prescription stimulants because it must be absorbed into the intestinal tract before it is converted to the active form of the drug, dextroamphetamine.18 However, college students still misuse Vyvanse for its ability to promote better focus or to lose weight.


Focalin (dexmethylphenidate) is primarily used to treat ADHD but may also sometimes be used to treat narcolepsy. It is available in an immediate and extended-release form and is less common than similar prescription stimulants because it is more expensive. In high doses, it can cause a rush of euphoria. Most college students misuse Focalin for its ability to increase energy, focus, and concentration. Long-term chronic abuse of this drug is associated with cardiovascular problems and other serious health problems.19

What Are the Side Effects of Prescription Stimulant Abuse?

According to the University Health Services at the University of Texas, the study drugs listed above can have very harmful side effects when they are misused. Some of the side effects of prescription stimulant abuse include:20

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Nervousness
  • Paranoia
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Mouth dryness
  • Suppressed appetite
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Impotence or changes in sex drive

What Are the Signs of Substance Abuse in College Students?

If a student is consistently abusing study drugs, he or she may display some of the following signs:

  • Extreme changes in sleeping patterns
  • Sudden fluctuations in weight
  • Withdrawing from friends
  • Uncharacteristic mood swings, depression, or irritability
  • Secretive behavior
  • Changes in grades or academic performance
  • Changes in social circles or friends
  • Sudden lack of interest in going to class or academic performance

Healthy Alternatives to Study Drugs

If you’re a college student, sometimes it may feel like using study drugs is the only way to pass an exam, stay focused, or deal with stress, but there are many healthy alternatives to study drugs that can help you excel academically and in your personal life.

  • Counseling – Individual counseling sessions can help you work through personal problems and learn how to cope with the stresses of college life without resorting to using drugs or alcohol. Most colleges and universities offer convenient and free counseling services on campus for students who need support.
  • Exercise – Regular exercise can make you feel better mentally and physically while also improving cognitive functions like concentration. Any type of exercise can improve your daily life, including walking, running, yoga, dancing, strength training, or biking.
  • Meditation – Meditation can help you refocus and practice mindfulness to relieve feelings of stress and anxiety. There are many websites, resources, and smartphone apps for guided meditation if you don’t know where to begin.
  • Adequate sleep – Getting enough sleep is essential for overall health and wellness. If you lack sleep, you’ll feel exhausted, anxious, irritable, and be less able to concentrate in class or while you’re studying. Although college students are notorious for sleepless nights, maintaining a regular bedtime routine and going to bed at the same time each night is a great way to start practicing healthy sleep hygiene.
  • Healthy eating – Getting the right amount of vitamins and minerals will fuel your body and your brain, helping you focus and concentrate while you’re cramming for those exams. A healthy diet will also give you the energy you need to cope with stress and anxiety.

How to Reduce the Prevalence of College Binge Drinking

According to the College Drinking, Changing the Culture campaign from The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, there are several things that can be done to curb the harmful habits of college drinking.

First and foremost, providing students and parents with education on the topic of college drinking can aid in the prevention of alcohol abuse disorders. The harmful effects of alcohol should be discussed with students well before they reach college-age, as many students are already displaying harmful drinking habits in high school.

Additionally, strong student and faculty leadership within the college community can help raise awareness about the issues related to college drinking and reduce the social acceptance and availability of alcoholic beverages on campus. Leadership can also provide increased mental health resources for students (especially those in their first year of college) to help them manage the social and educational stressors that students experience.

Help Is Available for Addicted College Students

If you are a student that is abusing prescription stimulants, we have drug detox programs that are specifically designed for you. We also accept most forms of insurance to make treatment more affordable. Call Briarwood Detox Center at (888) 857-0557 to get started today.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2741556/
  2. http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev.publhealth.26.021304.144652?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dpubmed&
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2734947/
  4. https://www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov/statistics/consequences.aspx
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2701090/
  6. http://www.monitoringthefuture.org//pubs/monographs/mtf-vol2_2018.pdf
  7. https://www.usatoday.com/story/college/2014/11/19/survey-shows-1-in-5-college-students-abuse-prescription-stimulants/37398613/
  8. http://texascollegesurvey.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/2015_Main_Report.pdf
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3489818/
  10. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-stimulants
  11. https://news.umich.edu/marijuana-use-among-us-college-students-reaches-new-35-year-high/
  12. https://harvarddapa.org/adderall
  13. https://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/search/a?dbs+hsdb:@term+@DOCNO+3055
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4917788/
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC181133/
  16. https://www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/ritalin/how-ritalin-abuse-starts.html
  17. https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_chem_info/methylphenidate.pdf
  18. https://www.everydayhealth.com/drugs/vyvanse
  19. https://www.drugs.com/focalin.html
  20. https://www.healthyhorns.utexas.edu/studydrugs.html

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