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‘We must stray from this society we are tolerating’: The ‘Adderall advantage’ in college

Published: April 4, 2013, 3:06 am ET
Contributor '15

It’s the night before the SATs, and hundreds of high school juniors are sharpening pencils, replacing batteries in calculators and looking over flash cards one last time.

In an ideal world, the only factor that would set certain students apart from others would be dedication to studying.

Unfortunately, life isn’t so simple anymore. Society has grown to be so competitive that private SAT prep tutors are in high demand along with various books illustrating methods to “ace the test.” Even more shocking: the use of drugs to boost academic performance.

As a result of such high competition, too many students across the nation are now relying on stimulant drugs, without proper diagnosis of attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and are gaining advantages in school. Two major problems arise from this: unnecessary abuse of drugs and unfair leads in academics.

ADD and ADHD are learning disabilities that affect focus, concentration and impulse control. The disorders, which start at a young age, can cause severe trouble in school.

Among other interventions, the common treatment prescribed by doctors are medications such as Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvance and Concerta, just to name the major players. Those children with either ADD or ADHD benefit from the stimulant as it aids in calming hyperactivity and allows for more appropriate and attentive behavior.

But recent research has discovered that high school and college campuses are now filled with students without learning disorders who are taking the medicine in an effort to raise their grades.

A study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in 2005 reported that the number of students admitting to taking stimulants to help with schoolwork had tripled between 1999 and 2003.

Since then, Columbia and other schools have reported that an estimated 20 percent of the student body on their campuses have used Adderall, Ritalin and other drugs for academic purposes.

While some people lumped into these percentages may actually be properly diagnosed with learning disabilities, the results of the surveys distributed suggest that a large portion of the students abusing stimulant drugs are not eligible for prescriptions.

With or without a disorder, students rave about the results they get from the drugs. A student at an Ivy League university said, “I don’t think I could keep a 3.9 average without this stuff,” and another high school student mentioned, nonchalantly, that the morning of the SATs, hordes of kids in the parking lot were snorting the drug.

Students clearly have no issue turning to drugs as a common crutch and obviously don’t consider the consequences beyond the production of better grades. But if students don’t truly have a disability, where are they getting the drugs? And more importantly, is it fair?

Two methods of trickery are commonly used to obtain stimulant drugs sans disorder. Either the students with prescriptions become dealers, selling pills to friends and classmates or even exchanging pills for meals and favors, or students fake symptoms to get doctors to diagnose them with a learning disability.

Dr. Robert A. Winfield, director of University Health Service at the University of Michigan, confirmed that he had seen a growing number of students falsely claim to have difficulty in school so that they can get stimulant drug prescriptions. Students boast about the ease in which they come into possession of these “miracle pills.”

“Everyone in school either has a prescription or has a friend who does,” one student explained in a June 9, 2012 New York Times article. “I lie to my psychiatrist — I expressed feelings I didn’t really have,” said another in the article.

The biggest and most controversial problem with students taking the pills is the advantage it gives them in an already competitive academic world. Stimulant drugs used to treat ADD and ADHD affect non-disabled students differently; it allows people to stay awake longer and become hyper-focused on schoolwork.

Essentially, students under the influence of Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvance etc. are able to finish papers, take exams and complete other schoolwork faster and with more diligence.
But since the pills don’t affect intelligence, but rather work similarly to a steroid, affecting motivation, concentration and temporary ability to work productively, it’s simply unfair.

“It’s cheating, and it really bothers me,” a student told a New York Times reporter in the same article, regarding her feelings on stimulant drugs. Many students, in addition to the Columbia undergraduate mentioned in The New York Times article, look at the abuse of these drugs disapprovingly.

A common consensus is that many of the kids taking the pills are smart and should be able to work hard without the drugs to receive good grades. Additionally, those who aren’t abusing feel like their efforts go unnoticed because students who are abusing the stimulants are surpassing them in academic performance.

A Princeton University senior writing for the Daily Princetonian acknowledged the temptation that students feel on highly competitive campuses. A pill that will essentially write my papers for me? Why not?

But she goes on to make an insightful point: “We are not only condoning and encouraging a competitive atmosphere in which it is acceptable to take drugs to help us succeed, but also an atmosphere in which subtle cheating is okay.”

Nothing about popping Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta or whatever the stimulant, is “okay.”

It goes against honor codes that many schools abide by. It rejects the idea of equality in academics. Not to mention, the abuse comes with health risks, such as addiction, and in extreme cases, psychosis, that most people fail to consider.

In a world where the value and expectations of getting straight A’s and being accepted to prestigious universities have increased significantly, it’s no surprise that students want to find ways to gain advantages. But turning to drugs is far from the appropriate answer. We must stray from this society we are tolerating.

If the process of education is “a complex activity that comes with its own set of goals and rules governing [then] taking ‘brain-boosting’ drugs seems to violate part of the point of education,” said Mark Sheehan, a University of Oxford research fellow.

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