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“Grade-Boosting” Stimulant Use on Campus

A recent editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal looks at the use of “grade-boosting” stimulants (such as Ritalin) by Canadian post-secondary students. According to the editorial: “Universities and colleges are ground zero for ‘grade-boosting’ stimulant abuse.”

The thrust of the editorial’s argument is that universities and colleges need to work proactively to reduce the misuse of such substances, including by educating students about “the dangers of illicit stimulant use.”

The piece also notes that many such stimulants, though prescribed to treat ADHD, are in fact not effective at improving academic performance. Indeed, the editorial notes: “the vast majority of the evidence shows no cognitive improvements with the use of stimulants when compared with placebo in healthy individuals.” Yet, it points out that adverse side effects include “death, life-threatening hypertension and arrhythmias, serious overdoses, dependence and depression.”

I believe that attention to such stimulant use is especially important in light of both increased tuition fees and increased levels of student debt. Over the past two decades, tuition fees in Ontario have increased by 160 percent in real terms. Also over the past two decades, student debt levels have increased very substantially, especially in Ontario, and especially for students from lower-income households.

As the cost of post-secondary education increases for students, pressure mounts for them to undertake more paid employment (including sex work) during the academic year. This reduces the amount of time they have to study.

As students feel pressure to get good grades at school–but have less time to study–it should not come as a surprise that an increasing number of them would try using “grade-boosting” stimulants. And irrespective of whether the evidence shows “no cognitive improvements…when compared with placebo,” we should not be surprised if they continue using them. In fact, less than a year ago, students in the faculty of medicine at the University of Sherbrooke “admitted to Radio-Canada they use Ritalin without a prescription to help them concentrate while studying.” Paradoxically, the same CBC online article reporting on this revelation also quotes the University of Sherbrooke’s dean of medicine as stating: “It’s not that dangerous to take Ritalin…”

If the University of Sherbrooke’s dean of medicine believes it’s “not that dangerous to take Ritalin,” how will university officials convince their students of its adverse side effects?

Enjoy and share:

Comments

Comment from Denise Freedman
Time: September 10, 2011, 10:14 am

I believe it is important to draw conclusions from the effects of increased student tuition fees and student debt, exactly as you have done here, Nick.

It should be no surprise that students, really just people, respond not only to the stresses of society at large, but also to the concentration of these stresses in universities and colleges–I want to say petri dishes–by seeking to boost their chances to succeed by using stimulants.

Why would students–people–respond differently to the increasing stresses of than other people?

I would go a step further in my analysis, however.

I wonder if in the stress-focusing petri dish that is post-secondary education, there might be other consequences that might, because of concentrating effect of post-secondary education, be more extreme than on the outside.

I wonder at the often described rape culture that is seen to dominate in post-secondary education, particularly in undergraduate years; might there be some correlation between the desperate “need” for stimulant use, to catch up, and outbursts of violence in general, and sexual violence in particular?

Comment from David Macdonald
Time: September 12, 2011, 7:35 am

The tuition fee increase in Ontario is worse than the 160% you specify. I believe it is closer to 244% (in real terms) since 1990.

Comment from Nick Falvo
Time: September 12, 2011, 8:41 am

I was referring to the following excerpt, found on p. 11 of the CCPA report:

“Ontario undergraduate tuition fees are now the highest in the country. In 1990, the average university student paid only $1,680 for a year ($2,500 in 2011 dollars). This fall, the average undergraduate student will pay an estimated
$6,500 for the year.”

A rise from $2,500 to $6,500 is 160 percent, no?

Comment from Ric
Time: September 30, 2011, 9:57 pm

The CMA article is wrong. The methodolgy it used to disprove that ritalin does not have any cognitive enhancing effects is misguided and takes an unrealistic approach at how these drugs can result in improved grades. The anecdotal evidence is in and it says that ritalin and other drugs work. Although people shouldn’t be taking this stuff, it is bad for your health and the grade boost is not worth it.

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