Drugs on Campus 2014: Addiction and Substance Abuse at Colleges

In 2013, there were almost 40,000 arrests and 165,000 disciplinary actions for drug- and alcohol-related offenses on American college campuses. In this issue of Drugs on Campus, we will see which states and colleges had the most and how the rankings have changed since 2012.

The Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE) collects crime statistics for all colleges that participate in federal student financial aid programs (which is the vast majority of higher education institutions). The figures we will be analyzing are from 2013 and are the most up-to-date snapshot of college crime until 2014’s numbers are released in late 2015.

Several crime categories and location types are included in the OPE’s 2013 college crime database, but we are only going to focus on the following: drug- and alcohol-related arrests and disciplinary actions that took place on campus grounds (including student housing facilities). We will also only include colleges with at least 5,000 enrolled students.

Before we get to the rankings, it’s worth noting the difference between an arrest and a disciplinary action. In fact, it’s crucial to accurately understanding which colleges actually have the most drug- and alcohol offenses on their campuses. In previous Drugs on Campus reports, we have only crunched the numbers for drug and alcohol-related arrests—in other words, incidents that resulted in criminal charges for the students involved. But disciplinary actions for drug and liquor offenses are far more common than arrests. Here’s why:

Imagine a student is caught at a party where alcohol is being consumed, but it can’t be concretely determined if that particular student was actually drinking. Instead of being arrested, they might be referred by the police officer to the student conduct office. A panel then decides what, if any, disciplinary action the student should face, which could include community service, probation, or a remediation program. Another reason a referral might be chosen over an arrest is to keep the college’s arrest figures down and its reputation for being a drug- and liquor-free institution intact, although this is understandably a very difficult thing to prove.

Whatever the case, when comparing colleges, it’s important to consider their arrests and disciplinary actions. Let’s start with on-campus drug arrests at the state level.

The numbers in the tables above are on-campus drug arrests per 1,000 students. This means, for example, that of every 1,000 students enrolled at a college in Wyoming (1st position) in 2013, five were arrested for an alcohol-related offense. The ten states with the highest drug arrest rates in 2013 were the same as in 2012—just in a slightly different order. But does the top 10 look the same for drug disciplinary actions?

Vermont ranks highest for on-campus drug disciplinary actions in 2013, whereas it was 7th for drug arrests. Wyoming—1st for drug arrests—was 8th for drug disciplinary actions. Despite these switches in rank between lists, the side-by-side maps above show that drug arrest and drug disciplinary rates across states are actually very similar; six states appear in both top 10 lists: Colorado, Connecticut, Montana, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming. So does the same apply to alcohol-related arrests and disciplinary actions?

The top four states for alcohol-related arrests were the same in 2013 as 2012. Moreover, they were also the top four states in 2013 for drug arrests, in the very same order. Let’s compare alcohol arrests to alcohol disciplinary actions.

Here’s where we see some interesting differences between state averages for arrests versus disciplinary actions. The most striking discrepancy is seen in Vermont: 35th in 2013 for alcohol arrests, but 1st for alcohol disciplinary actions. In fact, Vermont’s average rate for alcohol-related disciplinary actions in 2013 was almost 2.5 times higher than West Virginia’s, which placed 2nd.

Wyoming (1st for alcohol arrests) ranked 23rd for alcohol disciplinary actions. We’re seeing that there are strong differences in how colleges residing in certain states handle drug and alcohol offenses. Many come down hard on both (and appear on both top 50 lists as a result). Others put a stronger focus on disciplinary actions than arrests—such as Vermont and Maine.

It’s time to get more specific. Let’s move onto individual colleges.

We saw that the 10 states with the most drug and alcohol arrests and disciplinary actions were pretty similar between 2012 and 2013. So, is the same thing true for colleges? Well, sort of. SUNY Oswego was 2nd in 2013 and 3rd in 2012. New Mexico State University Dona Ana was 4th in 2013 and 2nd in 2012. But there are a few major differences. One is SUNY New Paltz: 1st in 2013 for drug arrests per 1,000 students, but 107th in 2012. It jumped 106 places in 12 months. That’s because in 2012 the college had 24 on-campus drug arrests, but 105—over four times more—in 2013.

Niche.com, which uses student reviews to score colleges on various metrics such as Diversity and Greek Life, gives SUNY New Paltz a D grade for Drug Safety. Here are the opening couple of lines from Niche’s Student Author Overview for New Paltz:

Oswego, another SUNY campus, which ranked 2nd in 2013 for drug arrests and 3rd in 2012, also has a D grade for drug safety on Niche.com. SUNY Oneonta, which ranked 7th in 2013 is graded C-, as is SUNY Plattsburgh (8th). That means that four of the top 10 for drug arrests in 2013 were on SUNY campuses. They either have a lot of drug activity or extremely active campus police—or both.

Notable movements between 2012 and 2013 include CU Boulder, which had 371 drug arrests on campus in 2012 and ranked 4th, but 199 in 2013 and ranked 26th. And Edinboro University of Penn., which had 41 in 2013 and ranked 34th, up from 164th in 2012, when it had 16 drug arrests.

Let’s see which colleges had the most drug disciplinary actions in 2013 and if the rankings look similar to drug arrests.

The top 50 list for drug disciplinary actions does not look very much like the top 50 for drug arrests. At least, not at first glance. In 1st place in 2013, as it was in 2012, is UC Santa Cruz, which had 1,214 drug-related disciplinary actions in 2013: roughly one for every 14 of its 17,200 students. In the same year, it reported only five on-campus drug arrests.

The University of Vermont ranked 2nd in 2013 for drug-related disciplinary actions (and Vermont ranked 1st as a state for the same measure). The college had 673 drug-related disciplinary actions, but only 23 drug arrests.

The 2013 drug arrests and drug disciplinary top 50 lists aren’t totally dissimilar though. Nine colleges had enough of each type of punishment to appear on both. They were, in alphabetical order:

Let’s see if any of these institutions also ranked in the top 50 for alcohol arrests and disciplinary actions.

Eastern Connecticut State University, in addition to appearing in both the drug arrests and drug disciplinary top 50 lists in 2013, also ranked 1st for alcohol arrests. And it rose 420 positions between 2012 and 2013 to get there—a shift so dramatic that it demands further investigation.

In 2012, Eastern Connecticut State University reported one liquor law arrest on its campus. In 2013, it reported 137. Hence its outrageous jump up the rankings. With only about 5,000 students, 137 liquor arrests really stack up. So what’s going on? Did Eastern CT students turn into raging alcoholics over the course of 12 months? We examined the college’s individual crime report for 2014 to find out more. And here’s the explanation:

Eastern CT’s students didn’t necessarily commit more alcohol-related offenses in 2013 than 2012. Rather, its police force changed how they responded to those offenses. This illustrates a crucial point: Colleges’ positions in the ranking tables for arrests and disciplinary actions, while undoubtedly often a reflection of their actual crime levels, are also a window into their particular policing policies. In other words, some of the red arrows that point up in our tables (to signify a negative shift closer to position one) should actually be green—because that movement may have been positive: a sign that police are catching more offenders. Knowing which college should be condemned and which should be commended, however, isn’t as easy as checking their per capita arrest rates. They should be examined individually and their disciplinary actions should be factored in alongside arrest rates.

Let’s move on to our final ranking table—alcohol disciplinary actions—to see where Eastern CT and other colleges placed in 2013.

We can see that, while it ranked 1st for alcohol-related arrests per 1,000 students in 2013, Eastern CT placed 35th for alcohol-related disciplinary actions (although in 2012 it ranked 5th). It had 315 liquor violations referred for disciplinary action in 2013 (312 of which occurred within residential facilities), compared to 516 in 2012. These numbers, as opposed to the arrest figures, are a better indicator of how Eastern CT’s alcohol-related crime shifted between 2012 and 2013.

Plymouth State University ranked highest in 2013 for liquor-related disciplinary actions, with 597 in total, compared to 447 in 2012. Again, this more subtle change in numbers (and rank) seems more reasonable and representative of a change in crime levels than drastic changes in arrest totals (which are much more likely to be a result of how crimes are policed in any particular year).

The University of Vermont, which we’ve already seen rank 2nd in 2013 for drug disciplinary actions, was 4th in 2013 for liquor-related referrals, and 7th in 2012. Niche.com gives it a D- for Drug Safety, based on student reviews and other measures. It’s also noted on the site that marijuana is the most common drug on the University of Vermont’s campus, which can surely be said for most colleges—not least CU Boulder, which resides in a state where marijuana is now readily available and for the most part legal. This might explain why CU Boulder appears in the top 50 lists for drug arrests and referrals. It may also explain why the Student Author Overview for the college on Niche.com begins like this:

It’s really important to consider multiple factors when evaluating which colleges have the “worst” levels of drug- and alcohol-related crime. Consistently appearing in the top 10 lists for both arrests and referrals might be one indicator, and a large number of negative student reviews could be considered another. There’s also the very significant factor of neighborhood crime: illicit drug use and underage drinking that is endemic to the geographical area in which a college resides, but for which the college could not reasonably be considered responsible.

We will continue to explore the complex landscape of college substance abuse in future issues of Drugs on Campus.

The time spent in college is, for many young people, a formative rite of passage as they progress toward a healthy, productive adult life. Drugs and alcohol can prove to be a huge stumbling block to this process. If you are a student experiencing the negative impact of drugs and/or alcohol, or if you are a parent concerned that your son or daughter has started down a path of addiction, help is available in the form of drug and alcohol treatment. Call our 24/7 hotline at 1-888-389-4481. Our treatment support specialists can answer your questions and ultimately help you find the best [substance abuse treatment] for your particular situation.


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