College Student Alcohol-Related Deaths: 36 or 1,400 Per Year?

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

USA Today newspaper conducted an analysis of college student deaths in the United States over a five year period beginning January 1, 2000. After a careful investigation, it identified 786 college student deaths. It then eliminated from analysis those whose deaths were completely unrelated to their status as college students, reducing the number to 620 (see Research Note below for specifics).

Overall, illness, homicides and traffic accidents are the leading causes of death among four-year college students, as they are for all young people age 15 to 24. Suicide apparently causes as many deaths as alcohol abuse and drugs, although suicide is often not disclosed.

The analysis found that the number of deaths among freshmen was disproportionately high. This included deaths from natural causes, suicide, and falls from windows, balconies and rooftops. Twenty percent of the freshman deaths were alcohol-related.

It appears that about 25 college students at four-year institutions die each year in alcohol-related incidents. If that number is expanded at the same rate to include students at both two- and four-year colleges, it becomes 36.* Each of these deaths represents a tragedy -- even one alcohol-related death is too many.

Fortunately, 36 deaths out of 12,000,000 students in a very, very small percentage. About two of every three college undergraduates is of legal age to drink; if that percentage holds among those deaths, about 12 occur by underage students who consumed illegally.

Former MADD board member Ralph Hingson estimated that 1,400 college students die each year from alcohol-related incidents. Hingson’s earlier research has been criticized by the federal General Accountability Office (GAO) for its inadequacies. In spite of his research record, his eye-popping “guesstimates” are now widely cited as factual.

Perhaps Mr. Hingson should explain why his estimate of 1,400 (recently increased to 1,500 and still more recently to 1,700) deaths is more accurate than that of 36 alcohol-related deaths annually.

*(There are 12,000,000 undergraduates in the U.S.: 8,100,000 at four-year schools and 3,900,000 at two-year schools. )

Research Note: No government or private agency maintains a complete list of all college students deaths in the U.S. USA Today compiled its data base on the Social security Death Index, data collected by Security on Campus, Kids endangered Now, Heart foundation, Center for Campus Fire Safety, news data bases, police and medical reports, school officials, and other sources.

The 620 deaths analyzed met the following criteria: (1) Student must have been enrolled in a four-year college or university. (2) Student’s death must have occurred related to the college community, either on campus or relatively near it. Exceptions included traveling away as part of a school -related activity or traveling to or from school. (3) School must have been in session or student must have been involved in an activity related to school or fellow students.


  • David, Robert and DeBarros, Anthony. In college, first year is by or the riskiest. USA Today, January 26, 206.