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Legal Recreational Cannabis Encourages College Enrollment

Number crunchers dug into college admissions data and turned up a surprising result. Far from crashing college completion rates, legal marijuana was an incentive to enrollment.

Does dope make you dumb? Ahmed El Fatmaoui, a graduate student at University of  Oklahoma, says “no.”1 In a May 2024 research article published in Economic Inquiry, El Fatmaoui shows that in states where recreational marijuana is legal, students are more likely to enroll in college and complete their degree on time, than to turn on, tune in and drop out.

Civil Stats

Using data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), he combed through survey results collected by the US National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) over the 2009-2019 period, to examine how changes in the legal status of marijuana use affected undergraduate student enrolment and course completion. As of April 2024, almost half of the states in the USA have decriminalized or legalized cannabis for recreational use. Since states began the process of allowing sale of cannabis, concerned parents and politicians have lobbied against these changes in law citing worries such as “It’s a drug that makes you stupid. It affects your judgment and motor skills and in the long term it makes you lazy.”2

Out-of-State, Out-of Mind?

Parents will be relieved to discover that the situation is not as dire in ‘legal’ states as they may have predicted. Far from causing a mass collapse in motivation to study, the results of El Fatmaoui’s analysis of federal government collected statistics show that the legal status of cannabis may actually attract students.

He found that states with legalized weed on average experienced a 9% increase in enrolment of out of state students compared to non ‘legal’ states. It appears that the legal status of cannabis was attractive to these out of state students. Whether this was because it acted as a signal that the state has policies that were more inline with the student’s values, or they were already users of the drug and were pleased to find a college where their risk of gaining a criminal record was lower, the result was a win for colleges. Further analyses found that this uptick in applications was not due to colleges lowering their tuition fees.

When he dug into in-state college enrolments, El Fatmaoui found that cannabis exposure did not negatively affect college enrolment rates of kids who grew up with notional access to the drug.

College Completion Rates Unaffected

By comparing college completion rates in Washington state and Colorado, two states where recreational cannabis has been legal for some time, he was able to show that the opening of a local weed dispensary did not reduce degree completion rates, and it did not delay student’s completion. The numbers showed a small increase in both dimensions, but this was likely due to the increase in out of state enrolments.

One important caveat to note is that prior research has indicated that recreational marijuana use may negatively affect a student’s ability to handle numbers3, El Fatmaoui agrees that this is a concern saying “Future research should focus on how this policy impacts peer dynamics and the selection of academic disciplines, with a special emphasis on differentiating between STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] and non-STEM fields.”

In summary, while recreational cannabis is rightly a concern for health reasons, it appears that kids exposed to the drug are not seriously disadvantaged when it comes to post secondary education.

  1. El Fatmaoui A. From high school to higher education: Is recreational marijuana a consumption amenity for US college students? Economic Inquiry. n/a(n/a). doi:10.1111/ecin.13225 ↩︎
  2. “In Debate Over Legalizing Marijuana, Disagreement Over Drug’s Dangers” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. April 2015 ↩︎
  3. Marie O, Zölitz U. “High” Achievers? Cannabis Access and Academic Performance. The Review of Economic Studies. 2017;84(3):1210-1237. doi:10.1093/restud/rdx020 ↩︎
Joanna Mulvaney PhD
Joanna Mulvaney PhD
Joanna Mulvaney worked as a bench researcher for much of her career before transitioning to science communication. She completed a PhD in developmental biology focusing on cell signaling in cardiogenesis at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK, before moving on to study axial skeleton development and skeletal myogenesis at King’s College London and regeneration of auditory cells in the ear at University of California San Diego Medical School, USA and Sunnybrook Research Institute, Toronto, Canada. When it comes to scientific information, her philosophy is: make it simple, make it clear, make it useful.


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