How to Stay Sober in College: A Detailed Guide for Students in 2021

college students

Moving away to college is a time for celebration, a new stage of one’s life, a time for growth, discovery, and learning. Students travel from all around the world to attend the college of their choice, where over the next few years they will live, sleep, and make new friendships that last lifetimes.

In a culture where drinking alcohol and drug use is glorified during the college years, entering such an environment can lead to substance abuse, addiction, and has the possibility of devastating effects for someone in recovery.

Being sober in college is a difficult endeavor, but research shows that providing addicts and alcoholics with the proper treatment and tools in recovery can help them succeed in their recovery, even in an environment that is prone to substance abuse, like a college campus.

Why Do College Students Abuse Drugs and Alcohol?

Did you know 1 in 4 of America’s college students meet the criteria for substance abuse or dependence?1 Young adults in college abuse drugs and alcohol for several reasons, some of the most common being:

  • To cope with the stress of finals, demanding courses, full-time or part-time jobs, and social responsibilities or pressures.
  • To fit in with a certain crowd, to make friends, or to feel comfortable/more outgoing in social situations.
  • To satisfy a curiosity of what it feels like to be high or to use certain drugs.
  • To enhance academic performance, improve alertness, and stay up long enough to study or meet assignment deadlines.

Many young adults use drugs for the first time in college, so it’s no surprise that substance abuse and addiction is common in this age group. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), here’s how many full-time and part-time college students abused alcohol and drugs on an average day.

Number of full-time college students aged 18 to 22 who used alcohol or illicit drugs on an average day

full-time college students drinking alcohol

Number of part-time college students aged 18 to 22 who used alcohol or illicit drugs on an average day

part-time college students drinking alcohol

College Students, Alcohol, and Binge Drinking

alcohol abuse in college

Unfortunately, alcohol abuse is an accepted part of college life in America. In fact, a study in 2005 by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that scores of college presidents, deans, trustees, and alumni view alcohol use on campus as a harmless rite of passage.2

Recent statistics also show the prevalence of alcohol abuse among college students.

  • 40.8 percent of college students report being intoxicated within the last month.3
  • 58.0 percent of full-time college students ages 18–22 drank alcohol in the past month.4
  • 37.9 percent of college students ages 18–22 reported binge drinking in the past month
  • 12.5 percent of college students ages 18–22 reported heavy alcohol use in the past month.4

Whether the high rates of alcohol abuse stem from the acceptance of an alcohol-saturated college culture or from students looking for a way to cope with the stressors of college life, the consequences of these behaviors are very destructive, and, in some cases, life-threatening.

Alcohol-related problems among college students range from increased rates of sexual assault, negative academic consequences, increased criminal activity, and unintentional injuries and death.

  • 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 died from alcohol-related injuries in 2005. This number increased from 1,440 in 1998.5
  • Nearly 700,000 college students were assaulted by another student who had been drinking alcohol.6
  • 97,000 college students reported being sexually assaulted or date raped in an alcohol-related situation.6
  • 25 percent of college students report experiencing academic problems due to their drinking habits, such as receiving poor grades or missing classes.6

Marijuana Abuse Among College Students

According to the results of the 2016 Monitoring the Future Survey, marijuana abuse is one of the most commonly abused drugs among college students. In fact, daily marijuana use among this age group at its highest level since the early 1980s, with about 5 percent of college students using it daily.7,8

marijuana abuse in college

College students frequently abuse marijuana simultaneously with alcohol and other drugs, increasing the risk for harmful physical effects and negatively affecting academic performance in several ways.

One 2015 study found marijuana use among college students was correlated with:

  • Poor class attendance
  • Lower first semester GPA
  • Longer time to graduation
  • Increased likelihood of dropping out of college

Research also shows heavy use of marijuana affects learning, information processing, and working memory, which are all essential for high performance in a college environment. Additionally, consistent and long-term marijuana abuse has been shown to change the structure of the brain in a way that impairs IQ, memory, attention, and information processing.9

Prescription Drug Abuse Among College Students

According to the Center on Addiction, the number of students abusing prescription painkillers, stimulants, tranquilizers, and sedatives has increased dramatically over the last several decades.1

prescription drugs abuse in college

In 2016, 2.4 percent of college students reported abusing Ritalin and about 10 percent reported abusing Adderall in the past year.8 Students on college campuses also frequently abuse drugs like:

  • Percocet
  • Vicodin
  • OxyContin
  • Xanax
  • Valium
  • Nembutal
  • Seconal

Although many college students may mistakenly assume prescription drugs are safe to use (even without a prescription), abusing prescription drugs can cause serious physical side effects like:1

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Organ damage
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Seizures
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Physical dependence
  • Addiction
  • Death

Other Commonly Abused Drugs on College Campuses

Although alcohol and marijuana are the most commonly abused drugs among college students, heroin and cocaine are also top threats. These drugs are stimulants, which many college students may abuse to combat the depressant effects of alcohol. Students may also abuse these drugs to decrease social anxiety, increase physical activity or wakefulness, or just to experiment with something new.

Signs and Symptoms of Addiction in College Students

Ongoing substance abuse in college can easily lead to addiction and there are several telltale signs and symptoms.

  • Missing class frequently without notice/a general lack of interest in classes or homework
  • Sudden change in academic performance
  • Extreme changes in sleeping habits
  • Drastic weight fluctuations
  • Spending a lot of time with new friends who are known to abuse drugs and/or alcohol
  • Isolating from friends and family
  • Drastic changes in personality and behavior
  • Mood swings, depression, and irritability

Recovery Resources for College Students

Staying sober in college can be a challenging endeavor for someone who’s never struggled with addiction, let alone for one who has. Fortunately, college students in recovery can take advantage of several different resources that are designed to help them maintain their sobriety despite a severe lack of sober college environments.

  • Off-campus sober living homes – Very few colleges provide sober dorms and let’s face it: sober college environments are rare. Students recovering from drug and alcohol addiction may struggle to stay sober if they live in a dorm with roommates who abuse drugs and alcohol. Instead of risking an unhealthy environment inside the dorms, off-campus sober living homes can serve as a healthy and supportive alternative living option. Eudaimonia Recovery Homes operates sober living homes in Houston and a sober apartment community for men in Austin, TX where students can get that communal college feel without the drugs and alcohol.
  • Outpatient drug and alcohol rehab – College students who are in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction may also want to consider enrolling in an outpatient drug and alcohol rehab program. Even after completing inpatient rehab, the college environment can be very stressful and tempting. Continuing treatment on the outpatient level can provide continued support throughout the transition back into society and onto a college campus. Additionally, most insurance providers offer coverage for outpatient drug and alcohol rehab services, which may alleviate the financial burden on college students.
  • Collegiate recovery programs – Some colleges offer recovery programs that are designed to help students in recovery maintain their sobriety, connect with other sober students, and focus on their academic success. For example, the Cougars in Recovery (CIR) at University of Houston provides a weekly community check-in, annual recovery conferences, and outdoor recovery activities like group hiking and camping trips during both the spring and fall semesters.

The Center for Students in Recovery at the University of Texas at Austin is another great resource. This college recovery program is operated by students themselves and serves as a safe place on campus for students in recovery. Students are invited to socialize, support each other, and talk about recovery. Finding common ground is important for these students, and having a place to go when the stress is high can safeguard their recovery.

5 Helpful Tips for Staying Sober in College

  1. Always bring a sober friend. Staying sober is much easier when you have someone with you to keep you accountable, cheer you on, and be sober with you. If you plan on attending a party, concert, or some other social event where you know there may be alcohol or drugs, invite your roommate from your sober living home or ask a sober friend from your collegiate recovery program to come along with you.
  2. Attend events that do not revolve around alcohol. Being sober doesn’t mean you have to miss it. There are plenty of fun, sober things to do in college. If you’re new to recovery and you don’t have much experience being sober on a college campus, it might be wise to avoid events that revolve around alcohol, like frat parties or tailgating parties. Instead, focus on sober fun in college by attending other events like community festivals, group camping trips, or academic club events.
  3. Attend AA/NA meetings regularly. Actively working the 12-steps after rehab is essential to sobriety maintenance. Attending local AA or NA groups in the Austin, Houston, or Colorado Springs areas while enrolled in college is an excellent way to prioritize your sobriety.
  4. Be prepared to say “no” and practice if you must. Although it’s much easier to say “yes” when you’re offered a drink with friends, just remember that it’s also okay to say “no.” On a college campus, you’re likely to run into plenty of situations where your sobriety may potentially be compromised, so it’s important to mentally prepare for those situations.
  5. Consider an online education. If you’re fresh out of rehab and you’re not confident in your ability to stay sober on a college campus, there are alternative options, such as sober college online. Enrolling in online courses will give you the opportunity to advance your education without having to live or attend class on campus. You don’t have to complete your entire degree this way if you don’t want you and you can always enroll in on-campus classes when you feel more secure in your sobriety.

Austin, Houston, and Colorado Springs have seen their fair share of drug addicts and alcoholics, and college students in those areas are not exempt. However, there are many resources and treatment programs for college students in recovery, including detox, residential drug and alcohol rehab, sober living programs, IOP, and peer recovery support program .

If you are struggling with substance abuse or you know a college student who needs addiction help, now is the time to act. Contact us today for more information about sober living homes and recovery support services for college students in Austin, Houston, or Colorado Springs.


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