How to Get the Real College Experience

College graduates rising hats

College is a fantastic opportunity to learn a great deal and to gain valuable experience in order to ready oneself for life as an adult. College is a time to learn a trade, or simply to further one's general education. Colleges were created with the intention of furthering the educational attainment of our society, of giving people the chance to reach for greater heights academically.

Unfortunately, for some people, college life ends up being a time for drug and alcohol experimentation.

We shouldn't be reasonable about college substance abuse. There are even new data which indicates long-term harm from experimentation with mind-altering substances while in college. When presented with new information about the harms or dangers of something in our society or culture, we should endeavor to change it.

College Substance Abuse

The National Institute on Drug Abuse published a paper in February 2018 which highlighted the long-term effects of drinking and drug use in college. The initial discovery was that college students who were members of fraternities or sororities were more likely to struggle with binge drinking or marijuana use later on in life.

We cannot prove a direct cause and effect relationship between Greek life membership and substance abuse later on in life. However, fraternities and sororities are the most common places for excessive substance abuse in college. We can see how one’s ongoing association with such groups could lead to substance abuse later on in life.

And this is not to say that fraternities and sororities are themselves bad or wrong. It’s not the Greek houses themselves that are the problem, or even that merrymaking events should be discouraged. It’s only the culture of substance abuse at such groups that needs to change.

Research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse

College students drinking alcohol and bulling their peer.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse published an article on a study done at the University of Michigan. Here’s how the researchers were able to draw the connection between adult-life substance abuse and fraternity/sorority membership in college:

  • The scientific study found that close to half of those who attended residential fraternity membership in college ended up having alcohol misuse symptoms and significantly higher marijuana use tendencies by the age of 35.
  • The study authors analyzed samples of U.S. high school seniors from the Monitoring the Future Survey. The survey followed those individuals throughout their life (up to age 35) via self-administered questionnaires.
  • The researchers found that men who spent at least one semester in a fraternity group had a significantly higher rate of binge drinking through and after college. Even by the age of 35, the men who spent some time in a fraternity had a substantially higher degree of excessive drinking than the men who did not spend time in a fellowship (and the men who did not go to college at all).
  • Among men age 35, about 45 percent of those who had fraternity membership in college reported two or more alcohol misuse symptoms, compared to 30 percent of men who did not have fraternity membership in college and 33 percent of men who did not go to college.
  • The trend was replicated in women as well. Women who had been resident members of sororities were more likely to have alcohol misuse problems later on in life. About 26 percent of women who had gone to a sorority also had alcohol misuse problems by the age of 35. Compare that to about 19 percent of non-sorority college-grad females struggling with alcohol misuse by age 35, and 17 percent of women struggling with alcohol misuse at age 35 who did not go to college at all.
  • The study also found that ex-fraternity and sorority members had a significantly higher prevalence of marijuana use into their mid-30s as compared to adults who did go to college but who did not attend a fraternity or sorority.

Enjoying a Drug-Free College Experience

Father hugging his son who just graduated

To play the Devil’s Advocate, the classic phrase of “Correlation does not imply causation” comes to mind. But isn’t it more than a little suspicious when both adult men and women who went to fraternities and sororities seem to have higher rates of alcohol misuse and marijuana use?

We find ourselves in a bit of a debacle. Fraternity and sorority groups were created to give college students a sense of community, a place of gathering, and a support structure to rely on when the semester becomes stressful. The Greek houses were meant to engage students in meaningful activities, extracurricular programs, community leadership, significant endeavors, etc. It’s ironic and unfortunate that there is a corollary between Greek organization membership and difficulty in adult life (as opposed to success and better preparedness for adult life).

We shouldn't agree that our kids should go out and “Live a little,” or that, “That’s just college for you,” or that, “Boys will be boys,” we should advocate all of the great things about college that can be enjoyed without substance abuse.

The responsibility for creating drug- and alcohol-free campuses and Greek houses rests on the shoulders of parents, college administrators, and the students themselves.

Parents should educate their kids about the harms and dangers of drug use and heavy drinking. Our youth should know the truth about drugs and alcohol long before they head off to college.

Colleges should institute sober programs, drug awareness, educational events, and more stringent policies on preventing drinking and drug use on campus. Colleges should promote sober semesters.

And last but not least, we have the students themselves. Joseph Espinoza (an advocate for peer-to-peer drug awareness groups in colleges) writes:

“The student experience while at a college or university can be one of the most transformational and important times in a person’s life.”
The student experience while at a college or university can be one of the most transformational and important times in a person’s life. Alcohol and other drugs can complicate this time of life with side effects we have all heard before. Faculty members and administrators reach out to help students often, but the accountability of action is ultimately on the student. I believe peer educators are a powerful tool on campuses. Having a student-to-student interaction about the effects of alcohol and drugs can sometimes be more effective than a faculty/staff member interaction with the student.

Joseph is right. Students are ultimately the ones who must decide for themselves not to drink or use drugs while in college. But as parents and/or alumni, the rest of us can also do quite a bit to set our youth up for a sober college experience. And, thanks to our knowledge of drug and alcohol misuse and the harmful effects that such activities can have on one’s future, working to create a sober college life becomes a very worthwhile endeavor.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, MCAP, RAS



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.