As our population in higher education becomes less-traditional in age and pathways through college become more varied and divergent, we find an increasing number of older students and returning students in the college community. The shifting composition of the student body should encourage us to re-evaluate our strategies for promoting health and wellness within our institutions. With high-risk drinking and alcohol use disorders on the rise across the age spectrum of adulthood, a primary focus of prevention practitioners should be on how best to deliver effective and engaging programming to these older students.

This challenge is unique because as students develop from emerging adults to young adults and continue to age, their reasons for using alcohol, behavior patterns, and harms experienced from misuse/abuse become increasingly diverse. Over time, we have seen increasingly healthy trends among incoming college students, but drinking rates do tend to rise as students matriculate to campus and progress through accomplishment of their degree. While these increases in substance use through college are becoming progressively more normative, many of us assume that young adults then “mature out” of heavy substance use after graduation. However, a longitudinal study of college students and their identity development post-college found that the expected decrease in alcohol-related problems was highly dependent on their progression through critical adult milestones. Social and emotional development was found to be a stronger predictor of reduced substance use among young adults than physical aging, and although it wasn’t addressed in the aforementioned study, students returning to college may not feel as accomplished as peers their same age due to differential life experiences.

Findings from the Monitoring the Future Study in 2016 suggest that while high-risk drinking rates tend to peak during emerging adulthood (18-21 years), they remain fairly stable through the late 20’s. Further, while high-risk drinking declines with development through adulthood, daily use of alcohol tends to increase and become more acceptable during this period.

alcohol use through middle adulthood

This is supported by additional research designed to plot trajectories for alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana use starting in college, where investigators found several pathways which were marked by increased usage throughout young adulthood and generally found that substance use behaviors across the board remained fairly stable until approximately age 30. Illicit substance use behaviors (particularly related to ecstasy and cocaine) may actually be more pronounced for young adults after graduation compared to prior due to increased access, time, and resources for abuse.

EVERFI’s massive survey database collected from students participating in AlcoholEdu for College can also provide insight on the reported behaviors of college students of traditional age compared to those of adult learners. When we compare responses of students over 21 years old to those who are under 21 years of age, we find some stark differences. While younger students are more likely to identify as abstainers than older students (35% vs 22%), adult learners are nearly twice as likely to report moderate alcohol use than their younger peers (18% vs 33%). When asked about negative outcomes associated with alcohol use, students over 21 years were less likely to experience physical, social, or emotional outcomes, but did report slightly higher rates of academic consequences, like missing class or performing poorly. It is likely that adult learners experience fewer negative outcomes because they are also much less likely to report engaging in risk-inducing behaviors like chugging and taking shots, and are more likely to engage in protective behaviors when imbibing such as keeping track of intake and alternating drinks with water. The only area where they fall short of their younger peers relates to driving while intoxicated – adult learners are less likely to report serving as or using a designated driver, but this may be related to their tendency to drink alcohol at home more often. Research findings about other substance use are also mirrored in our survey responses as adult learners are nearly twice as likely to report use of almost all other substances (though all usage rates are quite low) than traditionally-aged students.

In sum, these findings suggest that older students on campus will likely have different prevention-related challenges and strengths than their younger peers and prevention efforts should be geared towards their unique needs. Adult learners are the most likely to feel that conventional universal prevention programs do not apply to them and their experience and so they must be adapted. Prevention efforts for adult learners may be best focused on increasing bystander behaviors and perceptions of social norms as opposed to harm reduction strategies. However, there does seem to be evidence to suggest increased substance use (beyond alcohol) among older students in college and additional data should be collected on campus regarding how prevalent this behavior is, with resources directed towards mitigation accordingly. Finally, it is important to consider the pathways and experiences which lead older students to return to (or delay) their education so that wellness programming can be designed appropriately. For example, many adult learners who identify as abstainers may have had a history of problematic use in the past. Older students in higher education come to our institutions with particular skills and challenges to their education and our endeavours to promote their health and well-being will need to be respectively tailored.