How Colleges Address Drug and Alcohol Issues on Campus

Dan Reider




 “While looking at colleges for my children, I was concerned about the environment on campus and within student housing, especially after reading various articles online. As with any parent, there is a lot of anxiety when the child leaves home for the first time.


The college websites indicate that they are all committed to providing a safe campus environment but also explain that this is a time when many students will “find themselves.” The colleges further explain that students will be given some leeway but if they cross a line, the parents will be notified.


In talking with other parents whose children had already experienced some issues on campus, the line that colleges talk about the student crossing seems to be all over the place. A friend’s son, for example, was taken by ambulance to a local hospital after the paramedics were called by the school for possible alcohol poisoning. His parents were never called. Another student was transported to the hospital for a possible overdose. The parents of that student received a letter a week after the incident occurred. Similar stories were told to me by other parents.


Most colleges appear to require introductory classes, which include topics such as peer pressure, bullying, drug and alcohol use, dealing with roommate conflicts, etc. Many also require completion of online seminars that must be taken either before the first day of class or during their first semester. These are all good and worthwhile requirements. However, when the colleges were asked specific questions related to safety on campus and in student housing, they often had difficulty providing clear, concise responses.


These included such questions as, how does campus security try to keep drugs out of the dorms and student housing, how easy is it to get drugs on campus, do students generally worry about getting caught with drugs, where can parents go to get answers about their child’s behavior if their child is involved with drugs or alcohol, how easy is it to get a new room if the student’s roommates are involved with drugs, how does the college address synthetic drugs that may not be illegal, is there any parent notification when a student has to get counseling for drugs or alcohol, etc.?


  I thought most of these were relatively simple questions. After contacting a dozen or so schools in South Carolina, I received responses ranging from: no response to any questions; to a response that the particular school just did not have these types of problems; to student drug and alcohol use everywhere in the county was a problem; and that the problems with drugs and alcohol exist at other schools but not that particular school.


Overall, I was disappointed with the lack of openness of school officials, administrators and some, but not all, of the colleges’ law enforcement divisions. I learned that the schools all have fairly detailed and comprehensive drug and alcohol policies, have programs and classes the students must participate in, and have various levels of counseling if a student needed counseling. However, in almost all instances I felt the college either did not have a real understanding of the drug and alcohol issues facing young adults or, more likely, did not think it was the college’s role to address any of these issues. The general feedback was that the students were adults, had to accept responsibility for their actions, and the availability of drugs was no different on campus than other places in the community.


What surprised me was the number of times I was told off the record by campus law enforcement that they were limited by the administration on how involved they could get in addressing drugs and alcohol in campus housing. I got the impression that colleges were primarily concerned about the 60 to 80 percent of students that remained with the school after one year and not concerned about the struggling or at-risk students, who appear to be a much lower priority.



I sent the above letter to a number of colleges along with a list of 24 questions. The questions were typical of those which I had already asked the administration or law enforcement at the various colleges where my children were considering attending.


My goal was to get a sense of what role their institution played in the lives of their students and particularly with respect to those students who may already have a drug and/or alcohol addiction, who already exhibited some at-risk behaviors before attending school, or who were at risk of developing such behaviors now that they were living independently from their parent(s).


The questions I asked were primarily the result of much dialogue with school officials, doctors, parents, counselors, law enforcement, and others. I was happy about what I was hearing on the campuses I visited with my children. Our hosts made me feel comfortable that wherever my children ended up, the colleges would help with their transition from living at home to living on their own within the confines of a safe campus environment.


However, some of the answers I received bothered me. It was after the experience of looking at schools in South Carolina that I began to look online to see what schools were doing to address concerns any parent would have about their children attending college.


What I found was that some schools really do have a concern for what I call the at-risk student. I do not know what the national average is for students who enroll in college and finish within five years but I do know that many of the schools I looked at in South Carolina and elsewhere around the country had graduation rates of 80 percent, 70 percent, 60 percent and sometimes much less.


 I questioned what is causing such dismal graduations rates and how much do drugs and alcohol have to do with the student’s lack of success? Furthermore, if drugs and alcohol have a significant impact on the ability of some students to complete school, are any schools doing anything to address the issue other than these basic programs that seem to be the standard at every major school?


The following is a sample of questions I asked, how the questions were asked, and the reasoning behind my asking the questions. I then listed some of the responses I received from various colleges.


When filling out housing applications, are there any questions related to drug and alcohol use?  YES     NO       OTHER


When applying for a dorm room, the student typically must fill out a questionnaire. The questionnaires I have seen include most of the questions I thought seemed reasonable to finding a suitable roommate. There were questions about what time you typically wake up, what time you typically go to bed during the week and weekends, do you like to study in the dorm room, do you like it very quiet when you study, do you like to play a lot of music, etc.


These are all issues you would want to consider if looking for a roommate in a dorm, apartment or anyplace. Then the student was asked approximately how many nights a week would their boyfriend or girlfriend be spending the night in their room. In hindsight, I guess I am a little embarrassed that this question surprised me.


But what bothered me more was that when I asked housing officials why there were no questions about alcohol use or drug use, I was told that they were not allowed to ask a student those types of questions.


University of Florida: No questions about drug or alcohol use.

University of Alaska Anchorage: No questions about drug or alcohol use.

University of Maine: No questions about drug or alcohol use but includes questions about prior convictions.

University of Iowa: No questions about drug or alcohol use.

University of Vermont: Questions are asked about both drug and alcohol use.



Does law enforcement walk though housing during peak social times (Friday and Saturday nights)? YES    NO       OTHER


When initially asking schools about their policies regarding law enforcement in student housing, it became apparent with each school I asked that law enforcement, campus or otherwise, was not permitted into a student’s room or suite without reasonable cause. I think this is the expectation in today’s society of most everyone I discussed this with but some law enforcement appeared to believe that there might be some benefit of random room checks.


I got the sense that some law enforcement officials equated random checks of rooms to be roughly equivalent to asking student-athletes to have random drug screening. The schools I spoke with all had random or regular scheduled walkthroughs of student housing. I did find that law enforcement or maybe housing (not always sure who was calling the shots on most campuses) were sometimes reluctant to have random or regularly scheduled walkthroughs of student housing during what I would call peak “social hours.”


University of Florida: Only when needed.

 University of Alaska Anchorage: Regularly

University of Maine: Regularly

University of Iowa: Regularly

University of Vermont: Only when needed



At what point would a parent be called if a student were involved with drugs or alcohol in a campus incident?  Student is sent to hospital or ER ?   YES     NO       OTHER


How many violations of school policy would be required before parents are called?


Many college websites send mixed signals as to when a parent might be notified of an incident involving the student and when the parent would not be notified. I fully understand that these types of decisions are typically made on a case-by-case base. However, I do not understand certain situations. First, if a student has to receive emergency medical attention, the parents should be notified as soon as possible.


Some schools indicated that the parent would be notified, unless restricted by the student, if the student requested counseling or other mental healthcare on campus. I can see in this case that it may or may not be in the student’s best interest to have the parents involved initially. This is probably one of those times that the healthcare provider makes that decision. However, if the school is requiring counseling for the student after a student had an incident with say, binge drinking, I believe  the parents should be notified.


University of Florida: If student is sent to the ER or hospital, parents are called. Parents are called after two violations of the campus drug or alcohol policy.

University of Alaska, Anchorage: If student is sent to the ER or hospital, parents are called. Parents are called after one violation of the campus drug or alcohol policy.

University of Maine: If the student is sent to the ER or hospital, parents are called. Parents are called after one violation of the campus drug policy and after two violations of the campus alcohol policy.

University of Iowa: If the student is sent to the ER or hospital, parents are called. Parents are called after one violation of the campus drug policy. Depending on the violation of the campus alcohol policy, the parents might be called.

University of Vermont: This is dependent on the situation. Parents are emailed if the student has violated the school’s drug or alcohol policy.


Does the campus have substance-free dorms (I delineated what was meant by substance-free housing)?     YES     NO       OTHER


Has the school considered substance-free dorms?

YES     NO       OTHER


When I asked about campus substance-free housing, the response from almost everyone I spoke with was “Of course, we have substance-free housing. All alcohol and drugs are prohibited in student housing.”


When I explained what I was really asking with regards to substance-free housing, I got a much different answer. In the past 15 or so years, some colleges began to understand that something had to change with campus housing. In 2010, approximately 20 colleges offered some type of substance-free housing. Now there are over 150 colleges that offer students alternative housing. Students should be allowed to live in housing, if they chose to, which is free from pot odors, or just free from the intoxicated behavior exhibited by fellow students who party.


Some students either do not want to live in such an environment or they are in that at-risk group that cannot live in that type environment.


The substance-free housing includes several different types of housing depending upon what environment the colleges believe best meets the needs of their students. On some campuses this might be housing where the occupants make a commitment to not do drugs or drink on campus or at any time. Other housing might be where occupants are not allowed in the housing if they are under any influence of drugs or alcohol. Still others have housing where the occupants are actively participating in a recovery program.


The point here is not to point out the problems associated with possible violations or how violations are dealt with, but to emphasize that for many years now some institutions are trying to provide the best environment possible for all their student population.


University of Florida: The university has not considered substance-free housing.

University of Alaska Anchorage: Yes

University of Maine: Has had substance-free housing in the past but demand has diminished for several reasons and is not available this year. The university is considering housing on a smaller scale for the 2017-2018 school year.

University of Iowa: The university is presently considering recovery housing.

University of Vermont: Yes


After sending out the request for information from the 50 schools, I received five questionnaires back. Several schools responded with letters explaining why they did not want to answer my questions. I sent out a second request to the schools that had not responded but did not receive any response. A sample of the schools that sent letters back to me explaining why they would not answer my questions are as follows:


South Dakota State University: Referred me to their website and stated that if the information was not on their website, the information “is not a record or document maintained or filed by South Dakota State University.” 


University of Wisconsin- MadisonReferenced the schools participation in “several nationally benchmarked surveys” and declined to answer my questions. Their letter closed by saying if I had additional questions, I should contact the school.


University of Arkansas: Stated “we are declining to participate in your study at this time as we are in the process of conducting our own drug and alcohol policy review.” 


University of California, Los Angeles: Referred me to the “federally-mandated Drug-Free Schools biennial review (currently under development in draft form). It should be available on the University website….”


I know all these schools have great programs in place. The schools that I have spoken with explain they are taking all reasonable measures to keep students safe on campus. Some have told me that other schools have major drug and alcohol problems, but not their particular school.


In my opinion, a college’s measure of success is how well it does in preparing its students for life by providing a quality education, giving them the opportunity to enjoy the full college experience, and providing a safe campus environment.


As an integral component of this, the school must fully recognize that students enter college from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds and with a diverse set of personal circumstances. These present a huge challenge for the college.


If the college’s goal is to graduate a reasonable percentage of the students by providing a reasonable environment for the average student, the at-risk student has little chance of success. However, if the school recognizes that at-risk students cannot succeed in the average environment, then it should also understand that changes have to take place for those students to even have a shot at succeeding.


The administration at a school sets the tone for virtually everything that goes on at a college campus. Every year that these issues are not addressed, thousands of at-risk students are pushed aside and are not giving the tools and opportunity to succeed.


Colleges should promise a safe environment for all students -- not just students who can handle the drug and alcohol issue. They have to provide an environment that gives all students, even the at-risk student, a chance to succeed.


Author Bio:


This is an opinion piece by Dan Reider, who is a consulting engineer living in Columbia, SC. For more than 30 years he has been involved with design of K-12 facilities as well as colleges and universities. During the course of designing these facilities, he has attended and been a participant in many meetings where the topics have included discussions about student behavior, campus security concerns, and drug and alcohol use.  


For Highbrow Magazine

not popular
Google Images; Wikipedia Commons
Bottom Slider: 
Out Slider