PULLMAN, Wash. — Students who attend four-year colleges tend to drink nearly double the amount their peers in community college do, according to researchers from Washington State University. When it comes to marijuana, however, students in community college (and other two-year institutions) generally smoke more weed.
These findings are based on a survey of local college students in the Seattle area.
“I expected differences in both alcohol and marijuana use among two- and four-year college students, but was surprised by the magnitude of the differences given that the subjects are the same ages,” says lead study author Jennifer Duckworth, an assistant professor in WSU’s Department of Human Development, in a university release.
Study authors can’t say right now what’s behind these differences in substance use, but they theorize that perceptions of peer use may be one major factor. Many four-year college students told researchers they thought their peers drank more than two-year students believed their peers drank. Meanwhile, two-year students thought that their peers used marijuana much more often than four-year students thought their peers did.
The study reports the average four-year college student consumed over seven drinks weekly. On the other hand, two-year students only averaged roughly 3.5 drinks each week. Regarding marijuana use, the average two-year student smoked over eight days per month, while four-year students averaged only about 4.5 days of use on a monthly basis.
Study authors note that both groups admitted to experiencing consequences due to their drug use.
What makes these students different?
A total of 517 students (ages 18-23) took part in this project, all of whom reported drinking over the past year. Each participant filled out a series of confidential online monthly surveys in exchange for a stipend. Researchers add that the way in which they set up the study – confidentiality, with financial incentives, and easy to use – produced a very high retention rate.
Moving forward, study authors want to conduct additional research on two-year students.
“Two-year students are a much harder group to study because they tend to have more variability in terms of age, work status, and they are more likely to be from underrepresented racial and/or ethnic minority groups,” Prof. Duckworth adds. “We know a lot more about four-year students, at least partly because most of the people doing the research are on four-year campuses.”
Numerous four-year colleges and universities have their own research-based intervention programs designed to combat alcohol abuse on campus. Prof. Duckworth would like to see such programs at two-year schools as well.
Clearing up misconceptions about college students
One tool that may prove useful to this cause is normative feedback intervention, which focuses on educating students and correcting misconceptions. More specifically, misconceptions students have about peer substance use should be addressed and corrected. Prior research has shown that four-year college students usually believe their classmates are using more substances than they are in reality.
“If you think your peers are drinking more than they really are, that leads you to drink more,” Prof. Duckworth explains. She is planning on creating and implementing something similar for two-year students and marijuana use.
“Two-year students are using marijuana more than four-year students, but they also think their peers are using it more than they probably are,” the researcher concludes. “I say probably because we need more research to assess peer use. It’s an important next step is studying this often understudied population.”
The study is published in the Journal of American College Health.