Research on Risky Behaviors by First-Semester College Students

Research from Susquehanna University and SADD suggests that dialogue between parents and their first-year college students may be more important than ever.

Student partyWith the first semester in the rearview mirror and a new one beginning, research from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University and SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) suggests that dialogue between parents and their first-year college students may be more important than ever.

According to the national survey, approximately one-third of teens are experimenting with risky behaviors—many for the first time—during their first semester at college. Roughly one-third of current college students surveyed reported drinking alcohol (37%), engaging in intimate sexual behavior (37%), or having sexual intercourse (32%) during their first semester at college.

Among these teens, one-quarter to nearly half report engaging in these behaviors for the first time:

  • Drinking alcohol = 26%
  • Using other drugs = 46%
  • Driving impaired = 35%
  • Having sex = 27%

“Clearly these numbers are cause for continuing concern about the health and safety of young people on college campuses,” said Stephen Gray Wallace, director of CARE and an associate research professor at Susquehanna. “This reinforces the need for sustained education and prevention efforts both before and during the early stages of the college experience, when behavioral patterns are likely being formed.”

Research from the Pennsylvania State University also points to the early stages of college as a critical time in preventing students from becoming heavy drinkers, as well as the positive impact of parent-based interventions.

“While our research shows that first-semester college students do sometimes put themselves at risk, not all students are doing so,” said Penny Wells, SADD’s president and CEO, citing the 2011 Monitoring the Future study finding that alcohol consumption among college students has declined 12% since 1991. “Even those students who are [drinking or using other drugs] can still learn to reduce undesirable risk behaviors. Parent expectations and communication play an important role in helping their children through this transition period.”

Parents can help by:

  • Reflecting with their students on the first-semester experience and what role, if any, alcohol use played in their academic, athletic, or social performance;
  • Pointing out that research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) links college alcohol use with injury, assault, sexual abuse, and depression;
  • Emphasizing that many college students build a rewarding social environment without drinking or other risk behaviors;
  • Clearly communicating expectations for responsible behavior and sound achievement;
  • Encouraging on-campus connections with caring adults, such as a faculty member, coach, counselor, or member of the student affairs or chaplaincy staff.


Special thanks to Laura Snyder at Dick Jones Communications for this story. 

The study, conducted for CARE and SADD by ORC International Inc., surveyed 1,070 U.S. teens from ages 16-19 on their behaviors during college admission visits and in their first semester at college. Participants included current college students reflecting on previous visits and their first college year. Data was collected online in April 2012.

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