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Drugs on Campus

On the subject of college students’ drinking and drug use, the opinions of the American public remain complicated – and conflicting. Is partying an essential feature of the college experience, or a deadly threat to students? Is getting wasted a harmless tradition of higher education, or a precursor to sexual assault and other forms of violence?

In past years, we’ve studied how colleges across the country are addressing the use of drugs and alcohol on their campuses, tracking arrests and disciplinary actions occurring at each school. Using the latest U.S. Department of Education data, we created an update to our previous projects to illustrate which states and schools are taking a law enforcement approach to curbing substance use among students. Our findings raise compelling questions about how punishment and prevention might indicate or influence colleges’ party cultures. Keep reading to discover the American colleges where drug and alcohol arrests are most common.

Students Arrested Statewide


According to our 2016 figures, the nationwide rate of drug and alcohol arrests on campus exceeded three arrests per 1,000 students. That number was several times higher in many states, including a stunning 17 arrests per 1,000 students in Wyoming. Other primarily rural states neared the top of the list as well, such as neighboring South Dakota. West Virginia was among the top five, which might be no surprise given the party school reputation of the Mountain State’s flagship university (it ranked No. 2 in 2017). Even the Mountaineers’ mascot was arrested for drunk driving in 2017.

Interestingly, per capita arrest rates for drug- and alcohol-related offenses remained relatively low throughout much of the South, despite the hard-partying reputation preceding many schools in the region. Much of the West Coast boasted low arrest rates as well, including California and Washington. Conversely, Northeastern and Midwestern states demonstrated significant variation relative to each other, resisting any overarching trend.

Improvement or Inaction?


Three typically chilly locations saw the greatest year-over-year declines in 2016: Alaska, Vermont, and Maine topped the list for reduced arrest rates. For administrators at the University of Vermont, these stats may signal the benefits of a shift toward encouraging holistic well-being in its student body, rather than relying heavily on enforcement.

On the other end of the spectrum, Washington, D.C., witnessed a substantial surge in student arrests in 2016, far outpacing any other state with its single-year uptick of 63 percent. Louisiana and Wyoming each saw single-year increases of more than 20 percent as well. Even alcohol-averse Utah saw a 19 percent jump in arrests among students. Despite the state’s “dry campus” policies, administrators insist they arrest very few students for alcohol-related offenses, utilizing counseling and disciplinary options instead.

Getting Booked for Booze


Although we’ve studied arrest figures at the state level, institutions vary considerably in their particular approaches to combating the use and sale of drugs or alcohol. According to our statistics, Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania had the highest rate of arrests on campus with over 29 per 1,000 students. Penn State was also among the top five, and with the death of Tim Piazza in 2017 due to injuries sustained while intoxicated during hazing, one is left to wonder if the arrests are going to help prevent tragedies like this one from happening in the future.


Leading all institutions with the most extreme single-year surge in arrests was the University of North Georgia. The school has continued to step up enforcement in recent years, even suspending Greek life organizations for alcohol and hazing concerns in 2018. By contrast, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point and Northeastern University tied for the largest decrease in arrests. The University of Rochester was next on the list, perhaps because the school reconsidered its mental health and substance abuse approach and announced a greater array of counseling resources after the death of a student in 2014.

Arrest Alternatives


Which states have resisted arresting college students who break drug- and alcohol-related rules and laws, electing to deal with their indiscretions with internal disciplinary action instead? According to our data, Vermont leads the charge in this regard. This may reflect the University of Vermont’s choice to address drug and alcohol misuse proactively rather than turning to law enforcement interventions. The Northeast region was home to a more disciplinary-focused approach than elsewhere in the country.

Interestingly, schools in the South recorded relatively few disciplinary actions: Recall this area of the country also had surprisingly few recorded arrests as well. Perhaps hard-partying students at these schools tend to consume alcohol and drugs off campus, so the school is none the wiser when law enforcement disrupts their antics.

Partying Punishments


While arrests for drug and alcohol offenses are surely a concern to college campuses throughout America, the truth is many students will face disciplinary action for these offenses from the universities themselves. In fact, among the top five schools for these offenses, more than 1 in 10 students faced disciplinary action for alcohol and drug offenses, and of those five schools, all of them seem only to be growing in their year-over-year disciplinary actions. We need to stress that this is not necessarily bad, and the schools’ aggressive outlooks on disciplinary actions may actually be good. Of the top 50 schools for disciplinary actions, Western Oregon University doubled their disciplinary actions from 2015 to 2016.

Plymouth State University led all other universities for drug and alcohol offenses. In 2016, three of the school’s students were stabbed in an incident authorities attributed to drug-induced psychosis on the part of their attacker (the school has increased campus security due to this incident). U.C. Santa Cruz, Boston College, Gonzaga University, and the University of Tampa all followed closely behind, each with more than 10 percent of their students receiving disciplinary actions for drugs or drinking.

When Students Seek Help

Our findings reveal alcohol and drug use on campus remains a vexing challenge for American colleges. Some seem to emphasize arrests and enforcement, whereas others rely on counseling and education interventions. But while these consequences may be an essential step in a student’s journey to change, substance misuse need not trigger disciplinary measures to be treated. Students struggling with alcohol and drug dependence deserve help – whether they’ve already landed in trouble, or simply hope to avoid it.

If you’re a college student struggling with substance misuse, don’t let chemical dependency derail your education and ambition. Seeking the treatment you need is a sign of strength and can help you find restored health and hope. But you don’t need to make this important choice alone. ProjectKnow is here to help you better understand the nature of addiction and your treatment options, so explore our resources today.


We used college crime reporting data from the U.S. Department of Education for drug- and alcohol-related arrests, as well as disciplinary actions, from 2016. We looked at public four-year universities and private nonprofit four-year universities. When looking at individual colleges, we excluded colleges that did not have 5,000 or more students. When looking at percentage change for arrests, we did not include schools that did not have at least five arrests in both 2015 and 2016 to avoid schools exchanging small numbers and inflating percentages.


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