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College Binge Drinking

A look at the dangers and consequences of heavy drinking among college students with tips for prevention and treatment.

Last Updated: May 17, 2022
College Binge Drinking

Excessive alcohol consumption in college, particularly binge drinking, has been an ongoing problem for decades, but statistics show that the issue is growing steadily worse. According to a 2019 survey, 53% of college students reported consuming alcohol in the past month, and over one-third reported having participated in binge drinking during that time.¹

Binge drinking facts

Binge drinking is defined as consuming an excessive quantity of alcohol in a relatively short amount of time, bringing blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to at least 0.08 or above. For men, binge drinking involves consuming five or more alcoholic beverages within two hours. It consists of drinking more than four drinks for women within the same time frame.² Excessive alcohol consumption and binge drinking have dire consequences, causing over 1,500 deaths each year and often contributing to violence, sexual assault, academic problems, suicide, health issues, and more.³

Between 1998 and 2014, the number of alcohol-related overdose deaths rose by 254%.³ Additionally, binge drinking dramatically increases the risk of developing alcohol use disorder over time.

Jump to:

Why is binge drinking common among college students?
Health impacts of binge drinking
Social impacts of binge drinking
Economic impacts of binge drinking
Preventing binge drinking
Tips for treatment
References

Why is binge drinking common among college students?

There are many reasons that binge drinking and excessive alcohol consumption are common among college students. And although students involved in Greek organizations are more likely to engage in risky drinking behaviors, Greek life is far from a prerequisite.

Freedom from parental control

During their first six weeks of college, students are at the highest risk of engaging in binge drinking behavior, which can lead to continued excessive alcohol use and many dire consequences. Many of these students are getting their first taste of freedom without parental structure and control and, as a result, cross boundaries that they wouldn’t have if faced with direct punishment or consequences.

Inconsistent enforcement

College campuses are notoriously inconsistent in their enforcement of drinking rules and regulations. For instance, some colleges are considered “dry,” meaning that alcohol is not allowed on the campus. But university security often looks the other way on game days or when fraternity or sorority parties occur.

Availability of alcohol

Alcohol is often widely available to underage drinkers on college campuses because older students make purchases for them, and drinking frequently takes place at private parties, where IDs are not required to enter.

Social pressure

Starting out at college is often intimidating for many students. They have just crossed the threshold from high school, where they had an established set of friends, and are now developing new social circles. This makes them more vulnerable to peer pressure, as they want to appear more confident than they may feel. Additionally, those who enter into Greek society often participate in rush week, when many incoming fraternity and sorority members are pressured to drink heavily to show their dedication to the upper members of the organization.

Academic-related stress

Students may start binge drinking as a social activity, but many often discover that alcohol temporarily relieves stress. Unfortunately, those who turn to drinking to quell their worries over academic affairs often find themselves in an unhealthy cycle. They may begin skipping classes due to hangovers or failing to study for exams, ultimately degrading their academic performance even further.

Health impacts of binge drinking

Alcohol overdoses and deaths on college campuses have inspired many administrators to impose more stringent enforcement in recent decades. Still, overdose is just one of many health impacts of binge drinking.

Accidental injuries

Accidental injuries resulting from excessive alcohol consumption include those incurred from overdoses, vehicle accidents, falls, burns, and more. There were 10,142 deaths resulting from drunk-driving automobile accidents in 2019, the equivalent of one person dying every 52 minutes.⁴ And since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol accidents have risen, with a 25% increase in alcohol-related deaths between 2019 and 2020.⁵

Sexual assault

One in five women has reported being raped while enrolled in college, and the number of unreported cases is likely far higher.⁶ Alcohol is a contributing factor to date rape and other forms of assault, as it often leaves consumers in a vulnerable position, both mentally and physically.

Physical assault

Alcohol is a significant contributor to violent assaults of a non-sexual nature as well, with over 600,000 assaults initiated by someone drinking each year.⁷ Alcohol reduces inhibitions and destabilizes thinking, often resulting in violent overreactions and poor decision-making.

Immediate repercussions of drinking, like those discussed above, are just the tip of the iceberg regarding alcohol’s negative impacts on health. Over time, alcohol contributes to many chronic health issues and increased mortality, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Cancer and cirrhosis
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Changes in brain structure
  • Depression, anxiety, and dependence

The younger you are, the more significant some of these factors are. For instance, drinking during adolescence and early adulthood has a more profound impact on brain development than on older individuals. Binge drinking can lead to underdeveloped areas and abnormalities in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, cerebral regions, and hippocampus.

These abnormalities may contribute to depression, anxiety, and a higher risk of suicide among heavy drinkers. Nearly a quarter of acute alcohol-related deaths are attributed to suicide, which exceeds the number of fatalities from alcohol-related car accidents.⁸

Social impacts of binge drinking

Binge drinking often starts with students seeking social approval, but the unfortunate reality is that it ultimately damages many social aspects of a person’s life over time.

Poor academic performance

Heavy drinking during college impairs academic performance. Binge drinking can take priority over studying for exams and lead to frequently skipping classes. The result is that the student falls further and further behind, is often forced to drop courses to avoid flunking out, and takes longer to earn their degree — if they complete their studies at all. Needless to say, this can cause discord between the student and their family.

Risky behaviors

As discussed above, binge drinking brings the dangers of physical and sexual violence. But even if a student manages to avoid those dangers, they are still at risk for poor decision-making that can result in damaging consequences. Heavy drinkers are more prone to commit minor unlawful offenses that may result in arrest or expulsion from school. These include actions like shoplifting, driving under the influence, vandalism, or engaging in unprotected sex.

Unwanted pregnancy and poor pregnancy outcomes

Excessive alcohol consumption depletes our judgment and often leads to risk-taking, including within consensual sexual relationships. Impaired individuals don’t often consider the risks of unprotected sex and pay the consequences when facing unwanted pregnancies or STDs. And for those who decide to carry a child to term, alcohol use increases the risks of miscarriage, fetal developmental deformities, and SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome)⁹.

Damaged relationships

Binge drinking can damage an individual’s relationships with family, friends, mentors, peers, and romantic partners. As their drinking progresses, these relationships may become more unstable until they disappear altogether. If you’re struggling in a relationship with someone who exhibits symptoms of a drinking problem, there are many resources to help you. These include Al-Anon, anonymous help hotlines, and online communities.

Economic impacts of binge drinking

According to the CDC, excessive drinking costs the United States upwards of $249 billion annually from healthcare and criminal justice expenditures and lost work productivity, with binge drinking accounting for 77% of these costs.¹⁰ And that’s just on the national level. In terms of personal financial impacts, binge drinking can be devastating.

Some of the financial costs associated with binge drinking include:

  • Vehicle accidents
  • Court appearances, bail bonds, and lawyer fees
  • Lost college expenses from dropping or failing classes
  • Additional healthcare expenses
  • Costs of therapy and rehab, if needed

In short, binge drinking costs a lot more than it pays out. Preventing binge drinking on college campuses builds stronger, healthier, and more responsible young adults, and it saves money for the individual and the community at large.

Preventing binge drinking

Whether you’re a parent, instructor, or college administrator, preventing binge drinking should be a top priority to ensure students’ safety, success, and futures. Below, we’ll look at some critical methods for approaching this topic and preventative measures to ensure student adherence.

College administrators

It is vital for college administrators to establish clear rules, regulations, and penalties regarding alcohol consumption by students, both on- and off-campus. CollegeAIM is a comprehensive resource for college personnel that helps identify student drinking issues and provides strategies for addressing them.

Additionally, most college campuses provide healthcare for students, but many lack specific therapy options for those dealing with binge drinking and addiction. Improving treatment options available for students is one step toward a solution.

Education about the impacts of binge drinking is essential. It can help students make the best decisions when faced with peer pressure, stress, and other contributing factors to excessive alcohol consumption.

Parents

Sending your child away to college is a challenging transitional phase in your relationship. You may not want to interfere with your child’s studies and personal life as they attempt to spread their wings for the first time.

However, staying in regular contact will help you assess what struggles they may be facing. And even before they set off to that far-away dorm room or campus apartment, you should talk with them about the dangers of binge drinking and the potential consequences that come along with it. Many of the statistics in this guide will give you a starting point for topics to address.

If you sense that your child is engaging in binge drinking or other risky behaviors, talk to them and offer nonjudgmental feedback on how they can make better choices and options for therapy and counseling.

Tips for treatment

If you’re struggling with binge drinking, excessive alcohol use, or addiction, many resources for help are available at your fingertips. If you’re a student, you can reach out to the mental health services provided at your university. They can advise you on treatment options, including group support services, rehabilitation facilities, and more.

You can also find many resources online, including SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) and others. Below are several links to top-notch resources for help:

In addition to these online resources, your doctor or healthcare provider can help you overcome unhealthy drinking behaviors and addiction with different forms of treatment, based on your circumstances and preference, including:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
  • Meditation and yoga
  • Music and art therapy
  • Medications to assist with withdrawals and underlying mental health issues
  • In-patient rehabilitation
  • Out-patient rehabilitation
  • 12-step programs
  • Other forms of group therapy

References

[1] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020, September). 2019 National survey on drug use and health. Table 6.21B—Types of illicit drug, tobacco product, and alcohol use in past month among persons aged 18 to 22, by college enrollment status and gender: Percentages, 2018 and 2019. Center for Behavioral Statistics and Quality, Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt29394/NSDUHDetailedTabs2019/NSDUHDetTabsSect6pe2019.htm#tab6-21b.

[2] National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021, October). College Drinking. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/college-drinking.

[3] Hingson, R., Zha, W., and Smyth, D. (1998–2014). Methodology for arriving at estimates described in Magnitude and trends in heavy episodic drinking, alcohol-impaired driving, and alcohol-related mortality and overdose hospitalizations among emerging adults of college ages 18–24 in the United States, 1998–2014. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 78(4):540–548, 2017. DOI:10.15288/jsad.2017.78.540. Retrieved on May 15, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28728636/.

[4] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Traffic Safety Facts: Research Note. (2020, December). U.S. Department of Transportation. https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/813060.

[5] White, A., Castle, J., Powell, P., et al. (2022, March 18). Alcohol-related deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic. JAMA Network. Retrieved May 15, 2022, from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2790491

[6] Muehlenhard, C., Peterson, Z., Humphreys, T., Jozkowski, K. (2017, April 4). Evaluating the one-in-five statistic: Women’s risk of sexual assault while in college. The Journal of Sex Research 54(4-5):549–5756, 2017. DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2017.1295014. Retrieved May 15, 2022 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28375675/.

[7] Hingson, R.; Heeren, T.; Winter, M.; et al. (2005). Magnitude of alcohol-related mortality and morbidity among U.S. college students ages 18–24: Changes from 1998 to 2001. Annual Review of Public Health 26:259–279. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.publhealth.26.021304.144652 Retrieved May 15, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15760289/.

[8] National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. (2022). Alcohol Abuse Statistics. https://drugabusestatistics.org/alcohol-abuse-statistics/.

[9] O’Leary, C.M., Jacoby, P.J., Bartu, A., D’Antoine, H., Bower, C. (2013, March 1) Maternal Alcohol Use and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and Infant Mortality Excluding SIDS. Pediatrics. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2012-1907 Retrieved May, 15 2022 from https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article-abstract/131/3/e770/30981/Maternal-Alcohol-Use-and-Sudden-Infant-Death

[10] National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (n.d.) Binge Drinking. Division of Population Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm#.