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  MARCH 15, 2013
Maryland Studies Show Substance Use and Mental Health Predict Gaps in College Enrollment

Marijuana and other illicit drug use and mental health problems are associated with increased likelihood of discontinuous enrollment in college, according to research from the University of Maryland School of Public Health. The research was part of the College Life Study, a longitudinal prospective study of health-risk behaviors among 1,253 college students between 17-19 years old, who were interviewed annually for four years, beginning with their first year of college. Led by Dr. Amelia Arria, director of Maryland’s Center on Young Adult Health and Development, the study suggests that institutions concerned with improving retention rates may benefit from addressing alcohol and other drug use and mental health among students.

The findings come from two studies, the first which interviewed 1,133 participants about the number of times they used alcohol, marijuana, and other illicit drugs. Both marijuana use and other illicit drug use were associated with a decreased likelihood of continuous enrollment during college (staying enrolled every semester for the first four years of college), independent of several other possible risk factors. Interestingly, these findings held true for both infrequent marijuana users as well as students with heavier drug use. The study was published online in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

A second study, published online in Psychiatric Services, examined mental health’s role in the relationship between substance use and the continuous enrollment of 1,145 participants. In the first year, researchers measured participant Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and Beck Anxiety Inventory scores, childhood conduct problems, and alcohol and other drug use. In the third and fourth years, participants self-reported clinically diagnosed attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety, and age at diagnosis. Higher BDI scores predicted early discontinuity of enrollment, while cannabis and alcohol use predicted late discontinuity. Receiving a depression diagnosis during college was associated with both early and late discontinuity. Self-reported pre-college diagnoses were related to neither early nor late discontinuous enrollment when background characteristics were held constant.

The United States Department of Education reports that only 50 percent of first year students attending four-year institutions graduate within six years, demonstrating the need to address enrollment discontinuity among students. These study findings suggest that allocating resources for alcohol, other drug, and mental health screenings in the context of academic advising for first year students may improve student enrollment and retention.