College and university presidents and trustees, as leaders of their institutions, have the power to send a powerful message that their schools are committed to student safety, well-being, and academic success. Drug and alcohol use poses a dangerous threat in all three of these areas, which is why implementing evidence-based substance use prevention strategies is an urgent and fundamental duty for university leadership.

Michael Poliakoff headshot
Dr. Michael Poliakoff

The continuing reports of alcohol-related sexual assaults, injuries, and deaths are by themselves compelling reasons for trustees and administrators to strengthen and re-evaluate their current substance use prevention strategies. But there is yet more danger. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, of which I am president, has documented two major ways in which substance use also has a deleterious impact on educational performance, as described in our guide for university leaders, Addressing College Drinking and Drug Use.

First, drug and alcohol use can have an acute and sometimes long-term impact on a person’s ability to process information. The cognitive effects of substance use include impeded learning and memory, which are highly likely to affect academic performance. Students who use cannabis might struggle to absorb information during their classes and recall what they learned upon leaving the lecture hall. Researchers found that deficits in verbal learning took two weeks to return to pre-cannabis use levels, deficits in verbal working memory took three weeks, and attention deficits were still present at three weeks. And these studies address only lower potency cannabis, while many young adults are using cannabis with much higher potency.  

Second, substance use, whether it be alcohol, cannabis, prescription stimulants, or some other drug, usually produces an immediate, albeit short-lived, pleasurable sensation. The degree to which a person experiences these immediate rewards places the person at risk for more regular or compulsive use. That process can preempt the brain’s reward system. It follows that when students use any substance, they run the risk of having other activities and relationships that were once important to them lose their value. Focusing on academic pursuits—which might be challenging but carries longer-term rewards—becomes more difficult if a person is engaging in substance use. The sense of accomplishment that comes from academic success becomes much less meaningful. After a while, as drug use grows to be more valued, students re-shuffle their priorities. They are likely to commit less time to studying or professional pursuits, and in general might fail to take advantage of what college has to offer. Ultimately, their grades and their chances of graduating are likely to decline. Indeed, in one study of more than 40,000 students at 28 institutions, students who drank heavily four or more times during a two-week period were 10 to 16 percentage points less likely to have an “A” average than those who did not drink at all.

Fortunately, there are evidence-based practices with records of success that both strengthen the academic mission of the college and combat the “party culture.” Institutions must avoid sending the message that educational standards come second to recreation. Those institutions that emphasize academic purpose, provide access to substance-free activities, and “re-norm” the perception that everyone is using recreational drugs can go far toward making a positive change in campus culture.

Many institutions across the country are rising to the challenge. For instance, the Maryland Collaborative to Reduce College Drinking and Related Problems, a network of campuses in Maryland, has coordinated with local and state government to address excessive student drinking with evidence-based environmental and individual-level strategies, including reducing the availability of extreme strength alcohol. The University of Vermont’s multi-pronged prevention initiative has seen a decline by half in the number of students needing medical intervention for excessive drinking. At Hobart and William Smith Colleges, high risk drinking declined by 21% following a “re-norming” campaign.

While some institutions provide a road map for success, many others view substance use as an inevitability, or as an overwhelming challenge that they cannot address. If the conversation about campus substance use can be reframed around academic performance, however, there is potential for even greater change. As public support grows to hold colleges accountable for student outcomes, such as graduation rates and career success, colleges must recognize that treating substance use as a serious issue relates directly to their educational mission.

Michael Poliakoff, Ph.D., is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an independent, nonprofit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities. He previously served as vice president for academic affairs and research at the University of Colorado and in senior roles at the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. He has taught at Georgetown University, George Washington University, Hillsdale College, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Wellesley College. Dr. Poliakoff received his undergraduate degree magna cum laude from Yale University, a Class I Honours B.A. at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and a doctorate in classical studies from the University of Michigan.


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