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Project Investigates the Effects of ADHD on College Students


Updated October 29, 2012

Project Investigates the Effects of ADHD on College Students

Findings from the TRAC Project will help increase our understanding of the specific needs of college students with ADHD, and ultimately lead to the development of better interventions.

Photo © Scott Quinn Photography

Study could lead to more effective assessment and treatment for college students with ADHD

Although there is a great deal of research and literature on attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children, considerably less is understood about how ADHD impacts the college experience for students with ADHD. The TRAC Project, also known as Trajectories Related to ADHD in College, is aiming to change this.

The TRAC project is a five-year National Institutes of Health research study that will follow students with and without ADHD, from their freshman year in college onward to determine how ADHD impacts college life.

The study is the first of its kind: the first to systematically assess the educational, cognitive, social, psychological and vocational functioning of college students with ADHD, relative to a sample of peers without ADHD. It will also be the first of its kind to shed much-needed light on how ADHD and its associated impairments unfold across the college years.

ADHD and Difficulties With Self-Regulation

The college years bring about many challenges for students with ADHD: increased demands for self-management, organization and prioritizing of time and tasks, higher academic expectations, and many more distractions and temptations that can pull a student with ADHD off course. Not only does a student have increased responsibilities in college, but he or she must navigate college life without the built-in support system of parents, familiar teachers, coaches and friends. When this important support system is not present, especially at a time when demands for problem solving, decision making, and self-regulation increase so significantly, it can become very difficult for the student to manage ADHD and its related impairments.

Unfortunately, college students with ADHD do tend to be at greater risk for academic, social, and psychological difficulties, as compared to their non-ADHD peers. Although the exact prevalence of diagnosed ADHD in the college population is unknown, estimates based on large sample studies indicate that approximately 2 to 8 percent of college students report significant symptoms of ADHD. Yet even as awareness of ADHD increases, and numbers of young adults with ADHD attend college, we really don't know very much about the college experience for students with ADHD. As a result, there are few guidelines for clinically managing the condition on college campuses.

The TRAC Project

The TRAC project will follow students over a four-year period, beginning in their first semesters in college. Three researchers, from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Lehigh University, and the University of Rhode Island, will explore how ADHD impacts college life and determine if, when, and where breakdowns or problems unfold. Results will help increase our understanding of the natural course of ADHD among college students, and will identify potential targets for assessment and intervention.

Three nationally recognized ADHD researchers are conducting the TRAC project. These experts include psychologists Dr. Arthur D. Anastopoulos of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro Department of Psychology; Dr. George J. DuPaul of the Lehigh University Department of Education and Human Services; and Dr. Lisa L. Weyandt of the University of Rhode Island Department of Psychology.

"This study will advance our understanding of ADHD in young adults by ascertaining the degree to which college students with ADHD experience difficulties, across a broad range of outcomes relative to their non-ADHD counterparts," said Dr. Anastopoulos. "It will also give us a better understanding of how the trajectory of functioning may differ between these groups over a four year period, and what factors may affect these trajectories."

"The findings will help to shed light on the specific needs of college students with ADHD, which will ultimately lead to appropriate interventions for these students. Currently, stimulant medication is the most common treatment for college students with ADHD, but other nonpharamacological interventions may be necessary and beneficial for these students," noted Dr. Weyandt. "Our study will help to elucidate the specific academic, psychological, and social needs of these students, and in the process will also help us to better understand the trajectories of college students without ADHD."

"We will be able to identify demographic characteristics, as well as psychological and educational factors, that may predict the functioning of college students with ADHD as they encounter the challenges of the college environment," added Dr. DuPaul. "Knowledge about predictors and risk factors will aid the development of interventions that can be tailored to the individual needs of students."

Data gathered from the TRAC project can also help to increase the probability that students with ADHD will succeed and graduate from college, thereby impacting their long-term chances for financial stability and positive mental health.

The Study Details

Investigators will follow two groups of students: one group comprised of 210 students with ADHD, and another comprised of 210 without ADHD. Student participants will be drawn from ten institutions across the primary sites in North Carolina (UNC-Greensboro, Guilford College, and High Point University), Rhode Island (University of Rhode Island, Brown University, and Rhode Island College) and Pennsylvania (Lehigh University, Lafayette College, Muhlenberg College, Cedar Crest College, and Moravian College).

Researchers will track students' annual progress in the fall semester each year, using questionnaires, interviews, and psychological testing. A broad range of specific information will be gathered on how students with ADHD respond to the daily challenges of college life, and how they differ in these educational and social activities as compared to their non-ADHD peers. Outcomes in educational and psychological functioning, alcohol use, drug use, and sexual behavior will all be assessed. Investigators will also evaluate social impacts, vocational training, and the extent to which students utilize campus resources and other treatment services.

Related Reading:
5 Things Teens Need to Know About ADHD
Exam Study Tips for Students With ADHD
Strategies to Improve Writing Skills


Arthur D. Anastopoulos, Ph.D.; email correspondence, October 5 and 12, 2012.

George J. DuPaul, Ph.D.; email correspondence, October 12, 2012

Lisa L. Weyandt, Ph.D.; email correspondence, October 12, 2012

University of North Carolina - Greensboro, The Office of Research and Economic Development, "NIH awards Anastopoulos $3 million to shed light on needs of university students with AD/HD," Spotlights - May 29th, 2012

University of North Carolina - Greensboro, University News, "UNCG leading major ADHD study; funded by $3 million NIH grant," May 15, 2012

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