Being Substance-Free in College

Campus life is often characterized by exaggerated depictions of alcohol consumption, leading some to believe that drinking is a “ritual” and even an expectation on college campuses. Popular movies, ranging from Animal House to Old School, further solidify portrayals of excessive drinking as common for the entire student body. 

These depictions, however, are not necessarily accurate. While college students do drink more than their peers who are not in college, there are large percentages of college students who do not binge drink or drink heavily. 

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism breaks down some important data on the prevalence of alcohol use on campus on its site According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH):

  • 58.0 percent of full-time college students ages 18–22 drank alcohol in the past month compared with 48.2 percent of other persons of the same age.
  • 37.9 percent of college students ages 18–22 reported binge drinking in the past month compared with 32.6 percent of other persons of the same age.Binge drinking is defined as drinking five or more drinks (for males) or four or more drinks (for females) on the same occasion (i.e., at the same time or within a couple of hours of each other) on at least 1 day in the past 30 days.
  • 12.5 percent of college students ages 18–22 reported heavy alcohol use in the past month compared with 8.5 percent of other persons of the same age. Heavy alcohol use is defined as binge drinking on the same occasion on each of 5 or more days in the past 30 days; all heavy alcohol users are also binge alcohol users.

Inaccurate perceptions of the drinking behaviors of the “typical” college student can influence one’s own drinking behaviors. Individuals who believe their peers consume more alcohol than they actually do may increase their own drinking level to meet what they believe is socially normal for college students. By understanding the actual consumption levels of their peers, students are less likely to increase their own drinking levels to “fit in” and meet an inaccurate drinking norm. 

While excessive drinking isn’t true of all college students, it does happen, and choosing to drink alcohol can have important implications for the drinker and those around them. 

Campus Life Without Alcohol and Other Drugs

The external environment, whether that be peers or physical community, impacts a person’s behavior. This is especially true for alcohol-related behaviors. When choosing a college, consider the alcohol environment at the school and whether or not it will support your healthy development.  

What Is a Dry Campus?

Whether it be for religious reasons, being in recovery, or the desire to not be exposed to the negative outcomes associated with alcohol use by others, you may consider attending a “dry campus”. Dry campuses are schools where alcohol and other substance use violates the student code of conduct. For instance, at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, the student Honor Code Statement asserts students will “abstain from alcoholic beverages…”. 

There are many resources available to assist students looking for an academic environment that doesn’t emphasize alcohol use. For instance, The Princeton Review annually ranks colleges on a broad range of characteristics (e.g., “most beautiful campus,” “best classroom experience”) and has created a list of “Stone-Cold Sober Schools,” based on student-provided answers to number of study hours outside class, low popularity of fraternities and sororities, and low use of alcohol and drugs on campus. 

Substance-Free Campus Activities

To be the healthiest you, take advantage of social events at your school that emphasize fun and connecting with others on campus but don’t depend on alcohol.  

Most schools, whether they are a “dry” campus or not, offer amenities to help foster a college experience that is not focused on alcohol or other drugs. For example, many colleges and universities have specified substance-free dorms, in which students can live with peers who are also interested in a college experience free of an alcohol and drug use scene. 

Colleges and universities are also providing alcohol-free social, extracurricular, and recreational options and events to help provide students with social opportunities free of substance use. The majority of college students report being interested in attending events that do not focus on alcohol [pdf]. These social opportunities include movie nights, live music, gladiator challenges, roller skating and bowling nights, foam dance parties, and talent shows. Often, late-night pizza is provided and prizes are raffled off. Typically, these alcohol-free parties occur during high-risk drinking times, like Thursday through Saturday late evenings, and offered during traditional university events such as Homecoming and football games. Check with the Student Life Office or Health Promotion Department at your university; they are more than likely to have a wealth of educational resources and information on alcohol-free social events and can connect you with student interest groups and more.