Who Ends up Becoming the College Problem Drinkers?

Young People Drinking
Some Students Take Partying to Extremes. © Getty Images

Some students go through their college experience, including the parties and other social events, without developing a drinking problem. Others, however, become extreme binge drinkers and quickly meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder if not full-blown alcoholism.

How can you tell which ones will end up being the problem drinkers?

Statistics show that the number of students who drink during their college years hasn't changed in the past 20 years or so. Neither has the percentage who admit that they binge drink. What has changed is how often the binge drinkers drink and how much alcohol they consume when they do drink.

Parents who send their children off to college may wonder if their child will become one of the estimated 22.9% who will develop an alcohol use disorder before graduating. But how can you tell?

Researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine have found at least two indicators that are linked to students who end up with alcohol-related problems before getting out of college.

Early Drinking a Sign

After studying 1,160 freshmen (766 females, 394 males) through their four years of college, Meghan Morean and her colleagues found that the students who developed alcohol-related problems often:

  • Started drinking at an early age.
  • Got drunk the first time at an early age.

There have been many studies that link early onset drinking to problems later in life, such as alcohol use disorders, legal problems, and health problems, but the Yale student found that early age of first drink can predict problems at a much younger adult age.

Great Risk for Early Drinkers

"Quickly progressing from first alcohol use to drinking to intoxication was also an important predictor of heavy drinking and the experience of alcohol-related problems during senior year of college," Morean said in a news release. "For example, an adolescent who consumed his first drink at age 15 was at greater risk for heavy drinking and problems than an adolescent who took his first drink at age 17."

"Further, an adolescent who took his first drink at age 15 and also drank to intoxication at age 15 was at greater risk for heavy drinking and problems than an adolescent who had his first drink at age 15 and did not drink to the point of intoxication until he was 17."

Alcohol-Related Problems

Statistics show that the average starting drinking age for high school students is between 14 and 15 years of age, therefore many young people are at risk of developing alcohol-related problems, Morean said, including compromised brain development, liver damage during adolescence, risky sexual behaviors, poor performance in school, and use of other substances like marijuana and cocaine.

The authors recommend that prevention and intervention efforts be developed with the goal of delaying the onset of heavy drinking, especially for those students who are at high risk - those with impulsive personalities or a family history of alcoholism.

Parents who think allowing their underage children to drink at home in hopes that it will teach them to drink responsibly may need to rethink that strategy.


National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. "Wasting the Best and the Brightest: Substance Abuse at America's Colleges and Universities." March 2007.

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