About a decade ago, a group of students in my research methods class designed a study of drug use at our university. They were not able to take a representative sample of undergraduates in the anonymous survey, but the results of their project did indicate that use was common. This did not surprise me, but I was interested to find that the most popular substances and the motivations for consuming them were different from what I, having been an undergraduate in the early 70s, would have expected. The most frequently used substance was a stimulant known as Adderall, prescribed for attention-deficit disorders. About one-third of those surveyed reported having taken this medication, and only a tiny number said they had taken it for its official purpose. Most of the survey respondents said they had used Adderall as a study drug, because it increased their concentration and enabled them to finish academic projects at the last minute. I did not ask my students if any of them had worked on the project under the influence.
I see in today’s The New York Times that the long-standing college drug of choice has become standard among highly competitive high school students. Allan Schwarz reports that secondary school students seeking an edge on the SATs or on improving the records for admission to elite, selective colleges now routinely turn to Adderall and related substances to push their scores up. Schwarz compares “study drugs” to the substances athletes sometimes use to get an advantage on the competition.
While there is some evidence that stimulants can help boost test scores, there is no suggestion that these can actually contribute to depth of understanding or to long-term educational goals. The dope is all about Grade Point Averages, SAT scores, and getting the right credentials from the right places. To understand why education has turned into an arms race of medications, we need to think about what has happened with higher education in our nation.
On the eve of World War II, fewer than 5 percent of Americans over age 25 held college degrees. Today, that percentage has gone up to about one-third. Over this period, we have increasingly defined college as the route to upward mobility and many Americans, especially in government and academia, have come to expect that everyone should be upwardly mobile and that the best way to promote this goal is by extending higher education to as many people as possible. One of the difficulties with this effort is that the occupations that really require higher education have not kept pace with the numbers of graduates we have been cranking out of our institutions. During the 1970s, for example the percentage of people in the labor market with college degrees passed the percentage in professional and technical fields, and the gap between the two has grown wider ever since.
As college became the gateway to the supposed good life for more people, just getting the credentials became more important than any of the skills or knowledge those credentials might represent, leading students to focus ever more on the test scores and GPAs, in the process creating pressure for grade inflation and drawing attention from educational content. Through readily available loans, college administrators and government policy makers attempted to subsidize everyone’s mobility, even though opportunities were increasing only in a limited number of technical fields. This flooded the market, so that the college diploma began to turn into an entry-level credential. In order to achieve distinction in a world in which degrees were everywhere, and obtaining a distinctive degree was widely identified as the main route to prosperity, young people came to see getting into an elite college as they way to stand out from the herd. Ironically, spreading educational opportunity more widely has only ratcheted up the competition to get ahead.
Adderall and the other test performance enhancing drugs are weapons in this intense struggle for the right kinds of credentials.
Percentages of Americans in the Labor Market with College Degrees and Percentages in Professional and Technical Occupations, 1940 to 2006-2008
Source: Ruggles, S., Sobek, M. Alexander, T., Fitch, C. A., Goeken, R., Kelly Hall, P., King, M., & Ronnander, C. (2004) Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 3.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Population Center [producer and distributor].