David Schick, USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent June 20, 2013
In the wake of a prominent senator’s call for a crackdown on “academic doping,” experts confirm that the use of drugs like Adderall and Ritalin by college students is increasingly commonplace.
Sonia Tews was overwhelmed. She was paying for her own education while working 30 hours week and, at one point, spent as many as 14 hours on campus six days a week.
Tews, a 2011 graduate of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who majored in civil engineering, “needed a bump” and that’s when she took Adderall.
Earlier this week, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he wants colleges to crack down on students’ use of prescription stimulants, such as Adderall or Ritalin, to achieve academic excellence — also known as “academic doping.”
Tews doesn’t fit the profile of most academic dopers as she only used the drug twice throughout her entire college career. Her underlying motivation, however, highlights the main reason for Adderall’s appeal.
“I could get done in two hours what would take four or five without it,” she says.
Two experts who have done extensive research on the topic — David Rabiner, research professor at the Center for Child and Family Policy in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, and Sean Esteban McCabe, associate professor at the University of Michigan — say that academic doping has becoming increasingly commonplace.
McCabe and Rabiner both point to various research studies that show the majority of students who admitted to using the amphetamine-based prescription did so to enhance their academic performance — to help study and increase alertness or concentration. The prevalence of its use varied from colleges nationwide, ranging from 0% to more than 30%.
“There were just a couple of times where I felt like I was at breaking point where I had no other options,” explains Tews. “And Adderall was a better option than failing and a better option than actually cheating — the traditional type of cheating.”
Based on national data from the 2011 Monitoring the Future study, McCabe says, “One in every 10 college students in the United States has engaged in non-medical use of prescription stimulants in the past year,” and that trend has been increasing over the past few years.
“There’s an assumption that (Adderall) really does help students do better, and in large part that may be based on what students believe, but placebo effects are all over the place,” says Rabiner.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, columnist Roger Cohen writes, “Adderall has become to college what steroids are to baseball: an illicit performance enhancer for a fiercely competitive environment.”
McCabe says the idea of using the drug to increase one’s academic performance is “more of a myth than a reality.” He adds that the efficacy of its non-medical use in a college setting is unproved.
“The reason I didn’t use it regularly is because I take a lot of pride in how well I did in school,” says Tews, who finished top 10 in her class. She adds that her isolated incidents with Adderall were not a contributing factor in her accomplishment.
“I worked all through school, and I paid my way through school, and I know a lot of people who didn’t do that,” Tews says. “And to me, they had more of an advantage than I did because I worked 30 hours a week, and they didn’t. … I think there are different kinds of advantages. Where steroids can actually help you hit the ball farther, Adderall does not teach you calculus.”
Frank Arsics, a senior at Georgia State University — who has been diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Adderall since age 9 — agrees.
“It doesn’t help you do better; it just helps you focus. It’s not going to give you the answers,” he claims.
Tews argues that her “advantage” was comparable to coffee or to a full night’s sleep — something she often lacked — but, despite her justification, she does feel guilty about it.
“The non-medical use of prescription stimulants among college students has flown under the radar for too long at many colleges and universities, so the recent comments by Sen. Schumer to reduce the non-medical use of prescription stimulants are long overdue,” says McCabe.
He adds that a recent college-based study found more than 50% of students prescribed medications for ADHD were approached to divert — sell, trade or give away — their medication last year. Others have found that almost one-third of undergraduates did divert their prescriptions.
“People try to buy (Adderall) from me all the time,” says Arsics. He says that he’s never sold or given away his medication and takes it only as prescribed.
McCabe advises that colleges and universities should develop “effective policies and programs to discourage the non-medical use of prescription stimulants” because of how often this behavior goes undetected by health services, counseling centers, campus police and campus disciplinary offices.
Similar to Sen. Schumer’s proposed policy changes, McCabe’s ideas include:
Encouraging universities to assess their own schools to find out whether the non-medical use and diversion of prescription stimulants represents a problem on their campuses.
Practicing appropriate diagnosis, treatment and therapeutic monitoring of college students who are receiving prescription psychostimulants.
Educating students that they overestimate the prevalence of non-medical use of prescription stimulants by their peers and that the efficacy of these medications used non-medically to improve academic performance in real-world academic settings is unproved.
“We need to have a balance between reducing non-medical use and still allowing for medications to be provided to the students who need them,” says McCabe.
Tews says academic doping was already “frowned upon” during her time in school and that colleges should take it upon themselves to have an internal program — like an “anti-doping campaign” — if they wanted to reduce its occurrence.
“I did it twice; I graduated; I’m now an engineer; and I’m good at my job,” says Tews. “You could ask my boss that.”
David Schick is a summer 2013 Collegiate Correspondent.