States With Legal Weed See Increase in College Applications

Study high, take the test high, get high scores.

States where recreational marijuana has been made legal are seeing upticks in college applications, including from elite students. 

That is the takeaway of a study published late last year in the peer-reviewed journal Contemporary Economic Policy. 

“Using a two-way fixed effects difference-in-differences model, we investigate the effects of local recreational marijuana (RMJ) policy changes on college applications and find that the three largest state public schools reaped, on average, an almost 54% increase in applications,” the authors of the study said in the abstract. 

Recreational cannabis is currently legal for adults in 24 states and the District of Columbia, according to Pew Research Center. It is also legal in the U.S. territories of the U.S. British Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. According to Pew, which cited census data, “more than half of Americans (54%) live in a state where both recreational and medical marijuana are legal, and 74% live in a state where it’s legal either for both purposes or medical use only.” 

“About eight-in-ten Americans (79%) live in a county with at least one cannabis dispensary, according to the February analysis. There are nearly 15,000 marijuana dispensaries nationwide, and 76% are in states (including D.C.) where recreational use is legal. Another 23% are in medical marijuana-only states, and 1% are in states that have made legal allowances for low-percentage THC or CBD-only products,” Pew explained. “The states with the largest number of dispensaries include California, Oklahoma, Florida, Colorado and Michigan.”

Pew also noted that Americans’ attitudes toward marijuana use have shifted dramatically since 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize recreational pot use.

“Around nine-in-ten Americans say marijuana should be legal for medical or recreational use, according to a January 2024 Pew Research Center survey. An overwhelming majority of U.S. adults (88%) say either that marijuana should be legal for medical use only (32%) or that it should be legal for medical and recreational use (57%). Just 11% say the drug should not be legal in any form. These views have held relatively steady over the past five years,” Pew explained.

The wave of legalization has, apparently, had an effect on college admissions. 

According to the study published in Contemporary Economic Policy, the increase in applications “does not appear to come solely from low-ability students as both first and third quartiles of admitted student composite SAT scores to the largest three public schools do not decrease.”

“Rather, they both increase by almost 3.8% though these estimates are not statistically significant. Robust difference-in-difference and event study models support the signs and magnitudes of these gains and show they diminish over time,” the authors of the study wrote. 

The outlet PsyPost, which published analysis of the college applications study by one of the researchers, reported that in “the year that a particular state legalized recreational marijuana, the number of applications for that state’s colleges grew by about 5.5% more than colleges in states that did not legalize.” 

“This means that colleges in legal-marijuana states received a temporary boost in applications. We didn’t detect any increase beyond the initial spike. Our results control for school quality, tuition prices and labor market conditions that may affect student application decisions,” the researcher wrote. 

“As researchers continue to assess the risks and rewards of recreational marijuana, our results show that institutions of higher learning benefit when their home states allow their citizens to get high. One benefit is that schools had a larger and higher-achieving applicant pool to choose from. This in turn creates the potential to improve a school’s academic profile,” wrote the author, Christopher Blake.

“Our results fit into a larger body of research analyzing what affects a student’s application choices. We found that, similar to how schools see a spike in applications and SAT scores when those schools have winning sports teams, schools see spikes when they are located in states that legalize marijuana. While our data cannot prove it explicitly, this suggests that students do factor local policies into their college choice, a key result of interest for scholars and policymakers alike.”

But Blake also acknowledged some limitations to the research.

“Our data cannot pinpoint why freshmen who are often coming straight out of high school – and thus not of legal age (21) to buy recreational marijuana – might base their application decisions on recreational marijuana’s availability,” he wrote. “It could be the case that legal sales create a perception for prospective applicants that underage consumption is less risky. It could be simply because widespread news coverage made certain states seem more popular. Or it could be because more permissive public policies in one area, such as marijuana laws, might suggest more attractive and liberalized policies in other areas important to students, such as abortion. It’s hard to say without talking directly to students themselves.”

He added, “We also don’t know how much of the application boosts that occur after legalization are being driven by out-of-state students. For example, did legalization in Colorado cause students from other states to apply to Colorado schools in higher numbers? Alternatively, in-state students may have elected to apply to even more Colorado schools than they would have in the absence of recreational marijuana as a way to stay in their home state.”

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