Study drugs promote economic stratification in the classroom

Mubarrat Choudhury

Editor's note: This is one part of a point-counterpoint regarding study drugs. Read the other installment here.

Researchers from the University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School published a study in August which concluded that modafinil, a drug used to treat sleep disorders, functions as a cognitive enhancer. The best part — popular studies claim that is has almost zero side effects.

At first glance, it might seem like getting a 4.0 GPA is as easy as popping a few pills. However, Paul Nicholson, chairman of the British Medical Association Occupational Medicine Committee, wrote about the inconsistency of the Modafinil studies in an essay published by the British Medical Journal. He said that conclusions were only from small studies involving subjects taking one tablet.

"The finding of recent reviews and studies have been summarized and it is important to nuance the benefits,” Nicholson wrote. “Currently available research suggests that these drugs improve cognition in people at the lower end of the spectrum, but they may impair…healthy people."

While there seems to be a new wave of articles from various websites praising the new miracle drug, the reality is that there hasn't been enough research to completely verify the drug's risk. And as the drug becomes more and more popular, there could be potential dangers that the researchers aren't yet aware of, therefore exposing the public to yet unknown risks.

Furthermore, the ethical question also rises: Are cognitive enhancing drugs, such as modafinil, morally acceptable to use by students? Would students get an unfair advantage in the classroom? Those that are for the drug would argue that its usage is no different than drinking caffeinated drinks. Both have the effects of cognitive enhancement.

But beyond just the unassessed health risks of modafinil, there is the consequence of creating an income disparity within its usage. Currently the cost of modafinil, both generic and prescription, ranges from $500 to $1500. With those prices, only students with the means would be able to use the drug, giving them the competitive edge and thus creating an unfair advantage to the wealthy in our college education system. And although a sort of “pay-for-the-grade” system exists among various programs, such as SAT Prep classes, it wouldn’t do students any justice by perpetuating the practice.

Because using modafinil could essentially exacerbate unfair economic disparity, using cognitive enhancing drugs is like peeping across your neighbor’s test for the answer or looking at the solutions to the homework. It’s cheating. And since at this time, researchers are unsure about the possible risks of the drug, there shouldn’t be any reason to promote its usage.

Choudhury is an economics freshman from Dallas. Follow him on Twitter @MubarratC.