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Recognizing and Treating Alcohol Abuse in College and High School

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Research shows that 14.5 million people over the age of 12 in America have an alcohol use disorder, including high-intensity drinking, binge drinking, and heavy alcohol use, sometimes leading to alcoholism. Alcohol misuse like this can create negative consequences for your health, relationships, education, and employment.1

For some, misusing alcohol begins in high school, during the most crucial development period.

In this article:

Alcohol and High School Students

Substance abuse in school can begin at a younger age than some may realize. Some adolescents begin experimenting with legal non-alcohol mind-altering substances, such as over-the-counter cold medicine, before they have access to alcohol. The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey revealed that in the month before the self-reported survey, 29% of students drank alcohol, 14% binge drank, 5% drove while drunk, and 17% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol. Among those who engaged in binge drinking, 8% of students were in the 8th grade—the youngest students surveyed—with only 14% in the 12th grade—the oldest students surveyed.2

Alcohol use can affect the education of a high school student by:2

  • Changing brain development
  • Changing growth development
  • Causing memory problems
  • Making it harder to focus and concentrate
  • Interfering with completing assignments and projects
  • Causing tardiness or absences related to intoxication or hangovers

No study has conclusively shown that alcohol consumption inhibits learning. 3 However, research into the effect of alcohol use on high school GPA showed that students who chronically engaged in binge drinking had a GPA that was 0.4 points lower than their peers. The effect on GPA was observed to be most significant in the 9th grade. Researchers also noted that these students tended to have a lower GPA due to a reduced likelihood of high grades rather than a trend toward overall lower grades.3

Adolescents may try alcohol for many different reasons:3

  • Curiosity
  • Peer pressure
  • Mentally escaping a negative home environment
  • To experience the pleasurable effects
  • Environmental factors like living with family members who drink and provide access to alcohol

The earlier someone starts using alcohol, the more likely they are to continue drinking after high school graduation and into young adulthood, regardless of their future education or employment. Some may even go on to develop an alcohol use disorder or engage in using other substances.4

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Alcohol and College Students

Alcohol abuse in college is a nationwide problem, but the reasons why college students use alcohol can be highly individual. College students drink to fit in with peers, cope with stress, or to have a college experience that includes partying. Some college athletes report binge drinking alcohol to help cope with pressures and alleviate pain from injuries, among other reasons.5

Where a college student lives and the school they attend plays a role too. Attending a “party school,” being part of a fraternity or sorority, or living in a dorm or off-campus party house influences some students to drink.

Aside from physical and psychological consequences, academic performance is negatively influenced by excessive alcohol use.5 One in four college students reports negative academic consequences as a result of alcohol use.6

Consequences include:6

  • Missing classes to party
  • Missing classes due to hangovers
  • Missing deadlines on assignments and tests that result in falling behind in class
  • Receiving poor grades
  • Breaking campus rules and laws relating to alcohol that lead to legal issues and possible suspension
  • Having difficulty paying for courses, textbooks, and other expenses

According to one study, psychological distress and mental health problems are additional consequences students experience from alcohol abuse in college. Mental health issues like depression and anxiety associated with alcohol use can also impact class attendance and academic responsibilities.7

Other studies show that dropout rates of college students are influenced by heavy alcohol consumption. 8

Alcohol and Graduate Students

A common misconception is that once college students graduate from undergraduate programs, they mature and may engage in heavy drinking and partying less. For some, this is true. According to research, however, this is not a universal truth. Heavy alcohol consumption and “partying behaviors” often continue for several years after graduation, in part because excess alcohol use correlates with both pressure and letting go in college settings. That means it continues in graduate school too.9

Reasons for drinking in graduate school include:10

  • Coping with stress
  • Feeling the sedative, distracting, or pleasurable effects of alcohol
  • Self-medicating mental health problems
  • Trying to fit in socially

Drinking in graduate school can have negative consequences, like not completing the higher-level program. One study found a correlation between the use of alcohol and graduate school completion. While alcohol was not the only factor for why graduate students dropped out of their programs, the participants did admit to drinking alcohol regularly. 11

In addition, undergraduate college students got surveyed about their goals for attending graduate school. Researchers found that students who met the criteria for alcohol abuse, dependence, or alcohol addiction were less likely to pursue a degree in graduate school.12

The same negative consequences of alcohol misuse that affect high school and college students may also impact students in graduate school.

The consequences of alcohol abuse in college can include:13

  • Cognitive ability impairment
  • Motor skill impairment
  • Decision-making skills impairment
  • Injuries or accidents
  • Legal troubles
  • Missed classes
  • Delayed completion of assignments, tests, and projects
  • Poor results on tests and papers
  • Lower GPAs
  • Higher likelihood of dropout

Overcoming Alcohol Misuse to Reach Education Goals

Whether you are in high school, college, graduate school, attending vocational school, or returning to school after already experiencing the workforce, you can start making changes that will reduce or eliminate the impact of alcohol misuse on your education.

You don’t have to wait until summer vacation or the end of a semester or quarter to start making changes. You can start today. Many treatment options can work within the parameters of your school schedule. If you need more intensive treatment, it’s okay to take a temporary medical leave of absence from school. High schools and colleges are willing to work with you to receive help without derailing your educational goals.

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High School Treatment Options

High school students have a variety of treatment options, including some programs available specifically to individuals under the age of 18. 14 Parents or guardians, high school counselors, social services providers, and community service providers can help high school students receive early interventions. These interventions may include: 14

  • Participating in early or brief intervention alcohol addiction services. Many middle and high school programs offer services at school during the school day.
  • Enrolling in an outpatient program that accepts adolescents and young adults where you meet with a counselor weekly outside of school.
  • Enrolling in an intensive outpatient program (IOP) where you attend treatment for at least 20 hours each week when more help is needed.
  • Beginning residential treatment if you need round-the-clock access to doctors and counselors. Here you will live at a treatment facility where you will continue to work on school materials through an alternate educational program or take a break from your schoolwork, depending on your situation and the length of the program.
  • Undergoing medically managed detox and inpatient treatment if alcohol misuse severely affects your physical and psychological health or if you experience withdrawal symptoms when you do not use alcohol.
  • Becoming involved in a 12-step program for teens, like Alateen. Your family can also participate in peer support groups for families of individuals with alcohol addiction, like Alcoholics Anonymous Family Groups (Al-Anon).
  • Engaging in family therapy.
  • Engaging in individual therapy, which may include behavioral therapy and holistic methods that assist with learning stress management and coping skills, building a relapse prevention plan, and improving self-esteem. Equine therapy, art or music therapy, yoga, meditation, spiritual practices, and life skills classes are often used to assist young people with alcohol misuse.

College Treatment Options

College students—both undergraduate and postgraduate—have access to similar resources as younger students. However, college student resources are geared toward adults and are less likely to be facilitated by an older authority figure in your life. Your options to address alcohol misuse in college include:15

  • Campus-based or local community 12-step programs
  • Sober housing
  • Substance-free social groups and events as an alternative to venues and events where alcohol is served
  • College drug and alcohol counseling and education on campus
  • Collegiate recovery communities
  • Peer support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings
  • Clinical referrals to medical, clinical, and therapeutic services, like:
    • Medically managed detox and inpatient services
    • Residential treatment
    • Intensive outpatient programs
    • Substance misuse counseling
  • Holistic and alternative therapies to reduce stress and learn to balance school with life

We can help too. Call our treatment specialists 24/7 at 800-948-8417 Question iconCalls are forwarded to these paid advertisers to answer the questions you have about how alcohol misuse affects your education. We can also provide additional details on the many treatment options and help you decide which one supports your educational pursuits. Let’s work together to get you back on track toward graduation and your future goals.


  1. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Alcohol Facts and Statistics.
  2. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Underage Drinking. Alcohol and Public Health.
  3. Balsa, A. I., Giuliano, L. M., & French, M. T. (2011). The effects of alcohol use on academic achievement in high school. Economics of education review, 30(1), 1–15.
  4. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2006). Underage Drinking: Why Do Adolescents Drink, What Are the Risks, and How Can Underage Drinking Be Prevented? Alcohol Alert. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
  5. Iconis, Rosemary. (2014). Understanding Alcohol Use Among College Students: Contributing Factors and Strategies for Intervention. Contemporary Issues in Education Research, 3rd quarter, 7(3), 243 -248.
  6. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). College Drinking.
  7. Tembo, C., Burns, S., & Kalembo, F. (2017). The association between levels of alcohol consumption and mental health problems and academic performance among young university students. PloS One, 12(6),
  8. Martinez, J. A., Sher, K. J., & Wood, P. K. (2009, April 27). Is heavy drinking really associated with attrition from college? The alcohol-attrition paradox. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors: Journal of the Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviors, 22(3), 450–456.
  9. Arria, A. M., Caldeira, K. M., Allen, H. K., Vincent, K. B., Bugbee, B. A., & O’Grady, K. E. (2016). Drinking Like an Adult? Trajectories of Alcohol Use Patterns Before and After College Graduation. Alcoholism, clinical and experimental research, 40(3), 583–590.
  10. Allen, H. K., Barrall, A. L., Beck, K. H., Vincent, K. B., & Arria, A. M. (2020). Situational context and motives of alcohol use among graduate student drinkers. Addictive Behaviors, 104, 106267.
  11. Allen, H. K., Lilly, F., Beck, K. H., Vincent, K. B., & Arria, A. M. (2018, December 19). Graduate degree completion: Associations with alcohol and marijuana use before and after enrollment. Addictive Behaviors Reports, 9, 100156.
  12. Arria, A. M., Allen, H. K., Caldeira, K. M., Vincent, K. B., & O’Grady, K. E. (2020, August 14). Excessive drinking and drug use during college: Prospective associations with graduate school plans and attendance. Journal of American College Health: J of ACH, 68(2), 132–138.
  13. White, Aaron Ph.D. & Hingson, Ralph, ScD. (2021). The Burden of Alcohol Use: Excessive Alcohol Consumption and Related Consequences Among College Students. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, Volume 35, Issue Number 2.
  14. Winters, K. C., Botzet, A. M., & Fahnhorst, T. (2011). Advances in adolescent substance abuse treatment. Current Psychiatry Reports, 13(5), 416–421.
  15. Perron, B. E., Grahovac, I. D., Uppal, J. S., Granillo, M. T., Shutter, J., & Porter, C. A. (2011). Supporting Students in Recovery on College Campuses: Opportunities for Student Affairs Professionals. Journal of student affairs research and practice, 48(1), 47–64.
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