Editor's note: Due to the sensitive nature of this subject the students' names have been changed at their request to protect their privacy.
DeKALB | If freshman Brian Miller hadn't popped a prescription Focalin pill before his calculus quiz, he would have failed it, he said.
Focalin is a prescription medication for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder that Miller uses to help increase his alertness, concentration, information retention and to help him think "better and more fluidly."
Like many college students, Miller sometimes takes medications like Adderall, Focalin and Ritalin, not prescribed to him, to boost his academic performance. Sleeplessness is a side effect of the stimulants and helps students avoid fatigue when staying up all night to finish projects or cram for tests.
A http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=2b81fa27-a183-4d05-81d9-6f1885b32296%40sessionmgr113&vid=4&hid=106" target="_blank">2008 study in the Journal of American College Health found that 34 percent of students at one southeastern research university reported misuse of ADHD stimulants.
According to a http://chronicle.com/article/A-Ban-on-Brain-Boosting-Drugs/126523/" target="_blank">February article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, use of prescription drugs has soared on college campuses in recent years, now second only to marijuana in illicit drug use.
Adderall can be obtained only by prescription because it is a controlled substance by the Food and Drug Administration. It is in the second highest tier of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, along with cocaine, opium and morphine, because "abuse of the drug... may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence," and it has a high potential for abuse.
In October, Wesleyan University in Connecticut amended its Code of Non-Academic Conduct to ban the "misuse or abuse" of prescription drugs, according to an http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/10/13/wesleyan" target= "_blank">Insider Higher Ed article. The http://www.niu.edu/communitystandards/pdf/SCC.PDF" target= "_blank">NIU Student Code of Conduct has a similar policy, as does many other college campuses; the change at Wesleyan is unique because it was prompted by student complaints of abuse of prescription medications for schoolwork, which violates the university's http://www.wesleyan.edu/studenthandbook/3_honorsystem.html" target="_blank">Honor Code. The Honor Code, which outlines standards for academic integrity, says students must complete academic work "without improper assistance."
The NIU Code has similar wording. According to Article III, Section A.3 of the code, academic misconduct includes "use of any unauthorized assistance in taking quizzes, tests, or examinations or on academic assignments."
Brian Glick, assistant director of the Office of Community Standards and Student Conduct, said students would not be cited for drug misuse as academic misconduct unless they displayed disruptive behavior caused by a substance in a classroom.
Drug misconduct at NIU, according to Article III, Section A.9 of the code, includes possession, use or distribution of any controlled or illegal substance without a prescription.
Glick said those two policy violations do not intersect.
"We have a policy about academic misconduct and we have a policy about use of controlled substances," he said. "[Those are] two different things."
Glick said he does not believe prescription ADHD drugs would give students an unfair advantage.
"How fast a student works or how productive a student is in terms of taking a test or finishing an assignment... is entirely up to them," he said. "Some students work faster than others, some students process faster than others and whether a student finishes a test or not, that's irrelevant and is irrespective of whether or not they used a controlled substance."
Elizabeth Garcia, licensed clinical psychologist and drug use expert in the Counseling and Student Development Center, disagrees. She said students who misuse prescription study aids are definitely cheating.
"Because of the way [an ADHD student's] brain is wired and what's happening, they're struggling, so taking this medication puts them in a place where they can try to function as best as they can," Garcia said. "So when a student takes a medication that's not prescribed to them, they're trying to get an advantage over everybody else out there, and that just doesn't seem fair."
Garcia believes the practice is also cheating because access to ADHD medications is restricted.
"If it were available to everybody else and everybody else could take it, then it's not an unfair advantage," she said.
Miller and other students acquire Adderall and similar stimulants from dealers or friends. An Adderall pill costs between $2 and $4, Miller said, and he gets Focalin from a friend for free. He gets them both directly from students he knows diagnosed with ADHD.
Glick said a student has never been referred to the Office of Community Standards and Student Conduct because of academic misconduct on a controlled substance, but that it is possible.
"We will look at this on a case-by-case basis," he said. "More likely than not, it would be a matter of the drug policy as opposed to the academic misconduct policy, but there certainly could be crossover."
Miller said he is undecided as to whether it is unfair for him to take ADHD medications when he doesn't have the disorder. He said he believes it is unfair to take a drug that makes him "wicked focused" when students with ADHD need it to pay attention on a regular basis.
But, in a way, he said, it isn't cheating, because he still needs to invest the time and effort it takes to learn course material.
"I don't sit there with answers; it's all my own thoughts," he said.
Freshman Stephanie North, who uses Focalin and Adderall to write papers, said she thinks misusing the drugs is unfair because students take them out of laziness.
"At first I wouldn't have [thought it was cheating] but... it really isn't meant for people who can focus but don't want to," she said. "That's what I think students who take study drugs do... they just don't feel like [studying]."
Junior Robert Thompson takes the stimulant Concerta the night before a big test to help him review but makes sure to take it early to get some sleep before the test.
"[It's] not really [cheating]," he said. "It's like taking a Tylenol for a headache... You don't study any better, you just focus better."
Garcia said that students who misuse ADHD medications may ultimately be cheating themselves. Some students consider staying up all night and cramming as something that's healthy, but time management, a good night's rest and nutritious breakfast would be better for performance, she said.
"In the end it goes back to not procrastinating, starting to study in advance and trying to improve your focus and your concentration," Garcia said.