Study finds Students at High-Achieving Schools are at Greater Risk of Addiction

Photo credit: siora photography on Unsplash

Photo credit: siora photography on Unsplash

A 2017 research study led by Dr. Suniya S. Luthar, psychology professor at Arizona State University and professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and others, present evidence that students in affluent communities who attend high-achieving schools are at significantly higher risk of substance misuse and addiction relative to national norms across early adulthood.

The New England Study of Suburban Youth (NESSY) followed two groups of students attending schools in affluent, suburban communities in Northeast U.S. The first group was assessed from 6th through 12th grade, and across five years after college graduation at ages 23-27 (older cohort). The second group was assessed as high school seniors and each of the four years of college at ages 18-22 (younger cohort). In this article, Luthar describes the study’s findings:

“We found rates of addiction to drugs or alcohol among 19 to 24 percent of women in the older cohort by the age of 26, and 23 to 40 percent among men. These rates were three and two times as high respectively as compared to national norms.

Among the younger cohort by the age of 22 years, rates of addiction were between 11 and 16 percent among women (close to national norms) but 19 to 27 percent among, men or about twice as high as national norms.”

~Dr. Suniya Luthar

Causes. Luthar cites various reasons for the elevated risk of addiction among students at high-achieving schools in affluent communities, including (1) students at high-achieving schools are under tremendous pressure to achieve, (2) parental and student expectations to attend highly selective universities, and (3) students in affluent communities have disposable income that makes it easy to purchase alcohol and drugs. Complicating this issue further might be that parents do not recognize that their kids are struggling with substance misuse because they are doing well academically.

Parental Containment. Study findings underscore the protective role that parents play in containing children’s substance at age 18 and its inverse correlation with the " frequency of drunkenness, and marijuana and stimulant use in adulthood.”

Recommendations. Luthar recommends (1) reducing the tremendous academic pressure that students are under in order to gain admission into highly selective colleges, (2) introducing students to adults who were successful and had picked a school that was a right fit for them, (3) raising awareness among “science, public health and social policy to take seriously the fact that youth at high-achieving schools could be a population that is at inordinately high risk of addiction,” and (4) dedicating more research to kids who grow up in a “pressure cooker.”


Copyright © 2019 by Dagmar Kauffman, founder & executive director, On Balance Parenting.

All rights reserved.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. SMA 18-5068, NSDUH Series H-53). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

University of Illinois, Center for Prevention Research & Development. (2018). Illinois Youth Survey.

Illinois county reports