Young adults experience the highest rates of tobacco use and illicit drug use when compared to other age groups. Yet while a great deal of data exists on substance use among college students, relatively few data sources describe substance use among non-college young adults.
Young adults (18- to 25-years-old) experience the highest rates of tobacco use (38.1%) and illicit drug use (21.3%) when compared to other age groups.[i], [ii] Yet while a great deal of data exist on substance use among college students, relatively few data sources describe substance use among non-college young adults. In order to address the relative lack of data, it is important to understand how this group is unique, as well as some of the challenges associated with collecting substance use data among youth who are not attending college.
Studies show that college and non-college young adults differ in many ways, including how, where, and why they use substances.[iii], [iv] Research suggests that non-college young adults tend to have significantly lower rates of binge drinking and higher rates of tobacco use than college students.[v] While factors such as fraternities and athletics may influence consumption patterns for college students, workplace culture may play a significant role in substance use for non-college.
The population of young adults who do not attend a four-year college is highly diverse. Education-wise, experiences range from not graduating high school to attending a trade school to earning a terminal associate’s degree. Employment status and type of employment also vary. While the majority of this population is in the workforce (including the military), one-in-five young workers (ages 16-24) is unemployed[vi]. This suggests a high level of mobility, which can be a challenge to reaching and engaging this population. Also, most non-college young adults work in sectors that have positive cultural norms related to drinking, such as restaurants and bars, construction, and the military.[vii]
There are many reasons why data on young adults not attending college are difficult to find. One is the diversity of this population. Another is that there is no “one-stop” shopping—no single venue, like colleges and universities, where researches can focus their data collection efforts. Targeting workplaces is a step in the right direction, but not all non-college youth are employed.
In addition, some young adults may purposefully avoid inclusion in data collection efforts. They may have had negative experiences with researchers (e.g., racial and ethnic minorities), fear discrimination (e.g., gender and sexual minorities), or want to conceal illegal activity.[viii] Also, workplaces that employ young adults may be reluctant to share information about substance abuse among its employees, fearing that these data will reflect poorly on the site.
In addition, most data collection instruments do not include questions that identify members of hard-to-reach populations—such as young adults not attending college. These instruments may include members of these target groups, but there is no way to disaggregate group-specific information. For example, if a survey distributed to 18- to 25-year-olds does not include questions about college attendance, there is no way to tell which respondents do and do not attend college, and how the responses for the two groups might differ.
As more communities prioritize the substance abuse prevention needs of 18- to 25-year-olds, practitioners will need to identify creative ways to learn more about this hard-to-reach population. Strategies include the following:
[ii] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings, NSDUH Series H-46, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 13-4795. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2013. http://www.samhsa.gov/data/NSDUH/2012SummNatFindDetTables/NationalFindin... 
[iii] White, H. R., & Jackson, K. (2004). Social and psychological influences on emerging adult drinking behavior. Alcohol Research & Health.
[iv] O'Malley, P. M., & Johnston, L. D. (2002). Epidemiology of alcohol and other drug use among American college students. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, (14), 23.
[v] Johnston, L. D., O'Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2007). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975-2006. Volume II: College students and adults ages 19-45 (NIH Publication No. 07-6206). Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse, 307 pp.
[vi] Bureau of Labor Statistics April 2007-April 2010, Household Survey.
[vii] Duke, Michael R., & Baumbach, W. (2010). “Preventing Alcohol and Drug Abuse among Young Adults Who Have Not Attended College.” PPT Presentation.
Developed under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies contract (Reference #HHSS277200800004C).