24 Jun Enrolling in College Does Not Lead to Problem Drinking Later in Life, Study Finds
College is a time of new freedom and responsibility, but the perception is that the expression of this new independence is largely related to alcohol. While off-campus parties are a popular destination for students wanting to relieve stress and meet friends, it is unclear whether drinking in college leads to ongoing problems.
Many college students initiate alcohol consumption during their years on campus, but not all students who drink in college go on to have a dependence problem as they age into young adulthood, careers and family life.
A new study by researchers at Penn State examined long-term impacts of attending college in regard to substance use. The researchers wanted to know if attending college, rather than entering a job or trade school upon high school graduation, led to increased rates of substance use disorders.
Stephanie Lanza, research associated professor of health and human development at Penn State, explains that college is often believed to be a starting point for problematic alcohol consumption, but there has been little research on whether attending college has any impact on substance use.
The researchers began their study with two areas of interest. They wanted to determine how substance use would be affected if every young person in the United States attended college. They also wanted to find out whether the youths who went to college were protected or hurt in terms of substance abuse as they entered adulthood.
The study included data from 1,092 seniors in high school, taken from the results of the National Longitudinal Youth Survey conducted in 1979. One year following the survey, the students’ college enrollment was recorded. Finally, in 1994, the participants were asked about their substance use when they were about 33 years old.
In order to understand the impact college had on substance use, the researchers combined two types of tools: latent class analysis and causal inference. The findings appear in a recent issue of the journal Structural Equation Modeling.
The researchers used the two types of analysis to form subgroups that had similar characteristics. For this study, the participants were organized according to substance use.
With the analysis, the patterns emerged in two subgroups. The first group was made up of low-level users who had very low probabilities of engaging in binge drinking, smoking tobacco or marijuana or using cocaine. The second group was composed of participants who were heavy drinkers with a high probability of engaging in binge drinking and likely to engage in smoking.
The researchers found that college enrollment may actually prevent adult substance abuse among youth who might not be expected to attend college because of factors such as low household income and low maternal education. Specifically, they found that adults would be more than six times more likely to engage in problem drinking at age 33 if they did not attend college, compared to if they did attend.
The researchers determined that if every high school senior enrolled in college, it would significantly reduce overall substance abuse in adulthood. While every student does not enroll in college upon high school graduation, the findings do show that college enrollment alone does not lead to problematic drinking in adulthood.
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