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College drinking not tied to later substance abuse, study suggests

Despite often having a stigma of heavy drinking and partying, attending college does not necessarily lead to problematic substance use in adulthood, according to a recent study by researchers at Penn State University.

Boston University sociology professor Julian Go said binge drinking in college might not be part of culture, but rather due to students being in a certain atmosphere.

“College means that you have a bunch of young people put in the same space and they are looking for leisure,” Go said.  “Maybe drinking would be different if all college kids were doing online courses, sitting at home. I would guess that maybe drinking wouldn’t be so popular because it is a social activity. Sociality is facilitated by spatial proximity.”

Researchers surveyed data provided by more than 1,000 high school seniors in 1979 and data provided by the same students as college freshmen in 1980, according to a March 13 press release. The students were then asked about their alcohol and tobacco use in 1994 when most were about 33 years old.

“We found that among individuals who were college bound — those that were going to college anyway — the mere fact of going to college has no impact on their adult substance use behavior,” said study author Stephanie Lanza.

Lanza said the study revealed heavy drinking in college does not have a direct correlation with substance abuse in adulthood.

“Among those adolescents, college bound adolescents, there was no positive or negative impact on their adult substance use,” she said. “So, had they instead not gone to college, that would not have reduced or decreased their substance use.”

The study is slated to appear in the July issue of the Structural Equation Modeling journal.

Go said other aspects of life after college could be the reason behind less problematic substance use in adulthood.

“If you don’t go to college, maybe you don’t get into certain types of jobs, and then maybe that fact of unemployment or having low-income jobs, maybe it’s that that leads to drinking,” Go said. “It could be an effect not of socioeconomic status before college, but socioeconomic status after college.”

Brianna Snow, a College of Arts and Sciences sophomore, said as alcohol is a drug, heavy drinking in college could easily lead to problems later in life. However, she said a change in lifestyle later in life could make a difference.

“If alcohol isn’t too involved in your college life, there’s a way to change,” Snow said. “You have different goals and hobbies, and I think it’s mainly just a lifestyle.”

Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences junior Phil Jeng said he believes drinking in college is more often a result of socialization than a substance abuse problem.

“It’s the first time for a lot of people that they are outside their community, outside their family, so they might want to experiment or explore their environments, especially socially,” Jeng said. “And drinking does play a big factor in it college-wise because people here do it. People want to fit in. It’s something to do. It’s a social experiment.”

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