7 Red Flags that College Drinking has Become a Problem

Drinking has long been a part of college culture. Indeed, some students think of college as little more than a prolonged party. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 58 percent of full-time college students drank alcohol in the past month, compared to just over 48 percent of other people of the same age. Nearly 38 percent of college students reported binge-drinking in the past month, compared to 32.6 percent of other people the same age. Clearly, college students drink more alcohol, and this isn’t just harmless fun. About 1,800 college students die each year as a result of alcohol-related accidents. Another 600,000 students are injured each year and nearly 100,000 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assaults.

With the high level of drinking among American college students, it’s inevitable that some of those students will develop alcohol use disorders. Many people assume that college students are too young to develop addiction, but substance use disorders often appear between the ages of 18 and 25, often as a culmination of years of previous use. College is also incredibly stressful for many students. It may be their first time away from home, they may feel lonely, especially at larger universities, and they often feel a lot of pressure to succeed in a much more challenging environment. These pressures may cause students to drink as a way to cope. The following are some red flags that might signal college partying has turned into addiction.

Dropping grades

Falling grades are an early sign that alcohol use is becoming a problem. The Center for the Study of Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University analyzed data from more than 28,000 students who sought counseling at 66 colleges and universities. The study found an inverse relationship between drinking and grades. Students who had not engaged in binge-drinking in the previous two weeks had a median Grade Point Average of 3.19- a solid B average. Students who reported binge-drinking once in the previous two weeks had a GPA of 3.11, and while a drop of 0.08 may not seem like a big deal, the GPA continued to decrease as the amount of alcohol consumed increased. Students who reported binge-drinking three to five times in the past two weeks had a GPA of 3.04, and students who binge-drank 10 or more times in the past two weeks had a GPA of 2.95.

This study only shows correlation, but there are several reasons to think drinking causes grades to drop. First, drinking takes up time that could be better spent studying, exercising, or sleeping. Sleep is an especially important point because that’s when your brain converts new skills and memories into long-term memories. Drinking impairs the quality of your sleep, reducing the time you spend in restorative REM sleep. As a result, even if you study hard, you’re not learning as efficiently if you’re also drinking several nights a week. Another reason drinking hurts your grades is that it makes you more likely to miss important commitments, like going to class.

Missing class

Missing class, labs, study groups, and other commitments is another sign that your drinking has become a problem. One national survey found that students who binge-drink three times a week or more were five times more likely than other students to miss class. This leads to missing out on valuable information on the course material, what’s on the test, and other information relevant to doing well in the class. More importantly, learning is why you’re there and probably paying a hefty tuition. If you’re drinking instead of going to class or if you’re skipping class because you’re hungover, it indicates you’re prioritizing drinking over learning. Such a rearrangement of priorities is a massive red flag for addiction.

Disciplinary action

Disciplinary action, whether from the university or from the courts, is another huge sign drinking has become a problem. As noted above, college drinking can lead to all kinds of problems, including accidents, fights, and sexual assaults. If you face disciplinary action because of something you did while drinking, it’s unlikely that it was a fluke. In other words, it’s unlikely you’ll get a DUI the first time you drive drunk or get arrested for fighting at a football game the first time you get drunk at a game. Facing legal or disciplinary action is typically a sign of a larger problem.

Developing a tolerance

Developing a tolerance for alcohol is another sign you’re drinking too much. This is when you need to drink more than you used to, to get drunk. Tolerance is a sign of physical dependence because it means your body has adjusted to the presence of alcohol. Alcohol mainly affects the brain by increasing the effect of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA and diminishing the effect of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. The result is that certain parts of your brain don’t function as efficiently and you feel more relaxed in general. However, your brain will eventually compensate for the presence of alcohol by making less GABA, and more glutamate. Not only will you have to drink more to feel it, but you will feel worse without it.

Needing alcohol to relax

As noted above, developing a tolerance for alcohol indicates physical dependence. You have too much glutamate and too little GABA. As a result, you are likely to feel tense, irritable, and possibly even shaky without alcohol in your system. You may feel like you need to drink just to relax and feel normal. However, even if you haven’t developed a physical dependence on alcohol, feeling like you need to drink to relax is a danger sign. Alcohol and drugs are unhealthy coping mechanisms. Stress in college is fairly persistent and if you get a drink every time you feel stressed, you’re going to develop a problem. What’s more, since excessive drinking has been shown to impair academic performance, drinking in college is likely to lead to more stress as your grades drop and you fall behind on your work.

Lying about how much you drink

Being deceptive about your alcohol use is always a big red flag, but perhaps even more so in college where drinking is so common. If you feel the need to hide your drinking from your friends, it means at some level you know you’re drinking too much. You might lie outright and say you haven’t been drinking when you have, or you may just be evasive, or perhaps you have a few drinks at home before you meet up with your friends. Deceptive behavior regarding alcohol is always cause for concern.

Trying to quit but being unable to

Finally, you know you’re in trouble when you see that alcohol is having a negative effect on your life, you try to quit, but you can’t. Often, people with alcohol use disorder will be evasive about this too. They may decide they don’t really want to quit after all, or that they didn’t drink for three days and that proves there’s no problem. However, if you see that drinking is a problem and you keep doing it for whatever reason, you’ve likely developed an alcohol use disorder.


Burning Tree West is a transitional college program dedicated to helping adults between the ages of 18 and 29 recover from addiction. Our campus is located in Tucson, Arizona, near the campuses of the University of Arizona and Pima Community College. Our program is designed to help young adults overcome addiction, build foundational life skills, and pursue their educational and career goals. Contact us today for more information.