The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How college kids party differently from everyone else

Johnny Silvercloud/Flickr
Placeholder while article actions load

The United States' full-time college students are more likely to be heavy drinkers than young adults who aren't enrolled in college, according to a new federal report. But they're no more likely to experiment with other drugs, including marijuana, than other people their age. And college students are far less likely to smoke cigarettes than other young adults.

Those findings come from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), using data from the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The survey found that roughly 59.8 percent of full-time college students ages 18 to 22 drank at least monthly, compared to 51.5 percent of young adults not in college. More strikingly, while only 17.9 percent of college students smoked cigarettes in the past month, a whopping 32.6 percent of young adults not in college were past-month cigarette smokers.

Full-time students were more likely than non-students to perceive a "great risk of harm" from heavy cigarette use (72.5 percent versus 62.7 percent) and daily binge drinking (63.9 percent versus 55.3 percent). But the perceived risk of harm in regular marijuana use was about the same in both groups — 17.9 percent among college students, 16.7 percent among non-students.

Public health researchers have traditionally maintained that attitudes among teens and young adults about the risk of using various substances predict the actual use of those substances. "Youths who perceive high risk of harm are less likely to use drugs than youths who perceive low risk of harm," as the SAMHSA report's authors put it.

But researchers are finding more and more that this seemingly ironclad relationship doesn't always hold true. In the SAMHSA study, college kids were more likely than non-students to say that binge drinking is risky, but they were also more likely to do it anyway.

Other recent studies have shown that teenagers have become less likely to use marijuana over the past decade. But over the same period, they've also become less likely to say that there's a great risk of harm with frequent marijuana use.

Among the college students in the SAMHSA study, attitudes toward marijuana use have seen the biggest shift in the past decade. In 2004, 37.5 percent of full-time college students saw "great risk" in using marijuana regularly. By 2014, that number had fallen by more than half, to 17.9 percent. Attitudes about the risk of drinking, smoking cigarettes or doing other drugs have remained fairly static over the same time period.

While the SAMHSA study didn't report whether marijuana use among full-time college students also changed over that period, other studies have shown that regular marijuana use among college students has risen over the past eight to 10 years.

SAMHSA warns that "the transition to adulthood may cause many young adults to feel invincible, while their newfound freedom may also leave them vulnerable to making poor choices, such as engaging in substance use." As other recent studies have shown, the college substance use landscape is changing: Students are becoming less likely to drink, less likely to smoke cigarettes, and more likely to use marijuana.

But looming behind all this is one inescapable fact: Today's teens and young adults are living much, much healthier lives than most of us did when we were their age. Among other things, they are more likely to wear seat belts, less likely to have sex (unprotected or otherwise), less likely to get in fights, and less likely to try just about every type of illegal drug, according to CDC data.

In other words, the college kids are all right.