College and Drinking Reassessed

The usual association between college attendance and high alcohol use varies depending on age, living situation, and other factors, recent analyses by Rebecca Evans-Polce and Penn State colleagues show. Older college students drink less than their nonstudent peers, and younger college students drink more than their nonstudent peers but not necessarily just as a function of being a student.


The study compared high-intensity/excessive drinking by US college students and same-age nonstudents surveyed in Wave 1 of the NESARC project. Since recent trends show more older students entering into or continuing a college education, the age range for this study extended from 19 to 30. High-intensity drinking meant 1 or more past-year occasions of having 10+ drinks for men or 8+ for women. Excessive weekly drinking meant an average of 14+ drinks per week for men or 7+ drinks for women.


Those attending college after age 23 were actually less prone to high alcohol use than same-age nonstudents. Among older students, college attendance may not present opportunities for excessive alcohol use but instead may be a constraint, an additional time commitment for someone already working, having a family, or taking on other more mature roles.


College students in their early 20s were more prone to high alcohol use than their peers not in college. However, this difference just about disappeared when analyses included other factors such as age, race, and marital, parenting, and employment status. The association between attending college and drinking a lot may have more to do with demographics and social roles than merely with being a student.


The study also showed that the curve of college drinking from age 19 to 30 depends considerably on living versus not living at home. College students living away from home were more prone and those living at home were significantly less prone to hazardous drinking than nonstudents.


The study shows that college does not always go hand in hand with risky alcohol use and that, even when it does, student status may not be the main driving force. Considering heterogeneity among college students is useful and important in future research and interventions.


The paper was published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research and funded by NIDA and NIAAA.