Substance abuse on college campuses is nothing new, but it is taking a more extreme and dangerous form, with higher rates of frequent binge drinking and prescription drug abuse, and more negative consequences for students such as arrests and risky sexual behavior.
That's the portrait painted by a new, comprehensive report tying together a range of recent research on college substance abuse, supplemented with some of its own new survey data.
The report by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University argues substance abuse isn't an inevitable rite of passage for young adults. Rather, it argues a particular culture of excessive consumption has flourished on college campuses, and calls on educators to take bolder stands against students and alumni to combat it.
"If they make this a priority they can do something about it," said Joseph Califano, chairman and president of the center, who among other steps called on colleges and the NCAA to stop allowing alcohol advertising during high-profile events like the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
The report, being released today, relies largely on research that has already appeared in various forms, but assembles it to emphasize findings particular to college students.
Among the highlights:
l The proportion of students who drink (about 68 percent) and binge drink (40 percent) has changed little since 1993. But there have been substantial increases in the number of students who binge drink frequently (take five drinks at a time, three or more times in two weeks), who drink 10 or more times a month, and who get drunk three or more times in a month.
l Though still used by far fewer students than alcohol, hundreds of thousands more students are abusing prescription drugs including Ritalin, Adderall and OxyContin than during the early 1990s. The proportion of students using marijuana daily has more than doubled to about 4 percent.
l Analyzing outside survey data, the Center calculated 23 percent of college students meet the medical criteria for substance abuse or dependence. That's about triple the proportion in the general population.
Young adults in general have higher abuse rates, so a higher rate for college students is to be expected. But other research indicates that college students drink more than high school peers who don't go to college, said Henry Wechsler of the Harvard School of Public Health, who published similar findings in 2002.
Both researchers involved in the report and outside experts say they have seen troubling changes in how students drink in recent years.
"The percentage of kids who drink and binge drink is essentially the same between 1993 and 2005, but the intensity of the drinking has dramatically changed," Califano said. "There's an intensity to the consumption we see here that we don't see in the general population."
Carol Falkowski, director of research communications for the Hazelden Foundation, an addiction treatment and research group, said too many students are getting the message that excessive drinking is OK.
"It's getting more intense," she said. "Drinking games that were happening in private parties or houses or bonfires 10 years ago are now happening in public venues. That to me reflects a sort of larger acceptance of extreme drinking."
College administrators often say they know campus substance abuse is a problem but say there is little they can do.
But the report's authors say it's a question of commitment.
"Things do work, it's just having the will and time and money to implement them," said Roger Vaughan, a Columbia biostatistician involved in the report. "People need to step up and realize this is not a rite of passage, this is not something we should tolerate. If it keeps going, we're going to destroy our best and brightest."