The Academic Impact of Youth Substance Use

An abundance of research shows there is a bidirectional relationship between youth substance use and decline in academic performance and school attendance. Similarly, cessation of substance use is associated with improvements in academic performance and school attendance.

While not every young person who uses alcohol, marijuana or other drugs will suffer academically - much like not every young person who initiates substance use will develop a substance use disorder - substance use remains a significant risk factor for academic and health problems. The following is a selection of reports that explore this important academic connection.

Middle School and High School

America's Dropout Crisis: The Unrecognized Connection to Adolescent Substance Use

Lower high school grades and motivation and higher risk of dropping out are associated with use of illegal substances. This report from the Institute for Behavior and Health and the Center on Young Adult Health and Development (CYAHD) at the University of Maryland School of Public Health discusses decades of scientific studies that show the connection between adolescent substance use and school failure.

Malignant Neglect: Substance Abuse and America’s Schools

This report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse is a comprehensive analysis on substance use in American schools, focused on how drug use affect schools and suggests how to make schools and teens substance-free.

Roughly 30% of middle school students and 60% of high school students report drugs being used, kept, and sold in their schools. Students attending these schools are three times more likely to smoke, drink, or use illicit drugs than those whose schools are substance free. A large proportion of students who begin using alcohol and other drugs continue to use throughout high school. Adolescents who use alcohol and other drugs perform poorly in school, are at greater risk of developing anxiety or depression, and are more likely to drop out of school.

Adolescents are more likely to use drugs when they perceive the risks to be low. Additionally, parent drug use, peer use, and the prevalence of drugs in the community increase the likelihood that a teen will use drugs. Programs that teach students about the risks of drug use do help the perception of risk, but do not address the other environmental risk factor for drug use.


Substance use has an insidious way of interfering with a student’s ability to take advantage of all that college has to offer. Interventions to reduce rates of substance use should be part of any college’s plan to improve student retention.
— Arria, Caldeira, Bugbee, Vincent, & O’Grady, 2013

A report from the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland highlights research that shows a clear relationship between substance use and academic performance during college. Strategies aimed at reducing the rates of excessive drinking and drug use among college students could have profound impacts on student retention and could positively impact their long-term success and employability.

The Academic Consequences of Marijuana Use During College

Many studies show the negative effects of marijuana use on academic achievement during high school. This study from the CYAHD focuses on the consequences of marijuana use in post-secondary education. The results show an association between frequent marijuana use and skipping classes, longer time to graduation, and lower grade point averages (GPA) Marijuana use hinders academic achievement in college. A comprehensive strategy for promoting educational achievement must involve prevention of marijuana use and early intervention for students already using marijuana.

Dispelling the Myth of “Smart Drugs”: Cannabis and Alcohol Use Problems Predict Nonmedical Use of Prescription Stimulants for Studying

A research brief from the CYAHD describes a study that challenges the popular perception that nonmedical prescription stimulant use occurs primarily among students who are high achievers. The study shows the relationships between substance use, skipping classes, and subsequent changes in the GPA, suggesting that "escalation of substance use problems during college is related to increases in skipping class and to declining academic performance."

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