Could legalizing marijuana possibly be a big help for college admissions?

"It won’t hurt and it might help," say researchers who also analyzed the quality of applications after legalization.
By: | March 29, 2022
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“It won’t hurt and it might help”—that’s how a pair of researchers characterizes the impact that state legalization of recreational marijuana has on college admissions.

“There’s a pretty significant bump in applications immediately following availability,” says Joshua Hess, an assistant professor of economics at the University of South Carolina. “It does seem that students care about this.”

The main reason for the increase appears to be that states make lots of headlines when marijuana becomes legal. This, in turn, opens students’ eyes to colleges and universities in those states. Overall, there was a 6% increase in applications at colleges and universities right after marijuana becomes legal. The impact on flagship schools was more pronounced—those institutions saw a 15% increase in applications after legalization, say Hess and fellow researcher Christopher Blake, an assistant professor of economics at Oxford College of Emory University.

“For school administrators who are worried about what legalization what might do in terms of student impact, the lesson here is that they shouldn’t be concerned,” Blake says. “If anything, they should take the optimistic view of, ‘This is free advertising for my state.'”

Eighteen states have legalized recreational marijuana over the last decade. Administrators looking for more proof that it’s not the weed that’s luring students can consider that recreational marijuana often doesn’t become widely available for months to years after legalization. Blake and Hess also found that the quality of applications does not drop in a post-legalization surge. In fact, the larger pools of applicants appear to allow colleges and universities to pick more accomplished students, they say.


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Legalization can also signal a move toward greater equity for underrepresented and marginalized students, whose communities have borne the brunt of the nation’s drug enforcement, Hess says.

When it comes to retention and graduation, there is not enough data available yet to draw any conclusions. Still, administrators in states where recreational marijuana has not been legalized may be running out of time to enjoy a jump in applications. Data show smaller increases with each state that loosens its laws. “The longer administrators wait for recreational marijuana to become available in their state, the less of an effect they’re going to see at the schools,” Hess says. “If I was a powerful college president in a state where there is no recreational marijuana, I would pressure for legalization right now.”