Illustration of a cartoon coffee cup and cartoon energy drink boxing.
Illustration by Rumaisa Wajahath

As dawn breaks on college campuses across the country, a familiar ritual unfolds: the desperate quest for caffeine. From early-morning lectures to late-night cramming sessions, students have developed a love affair with their chosen energy elixirs. There are two contenders in this arena: energy drinks and good old-fashioned coffee. I always have been, and always will be, a coffee girl, but lately, I’ve noticed many of my friends trading in their mugs for brightly-colored cans. 

Coffee, once the lifeblood of college campuses, is facing stiff competition in the hearts of young adults. Enter the energy drink, sporting flashy logos, calling from convenience store shelves and promising an electrifying shock to power through all-nighters. In 2021, the energy drink market was valued at $86.35 billion. Between 2022 and 2030, that number is expected to increase by a compound annual growth rate of 8.3%. 

Coffee, beyond its caffeinated allure, has historically been a symbol of introspection and community. Its roots trace back to centuries-old traditions and cultures that valued the slow, deliberate act of brewing and savoring each sip. 

Whether you’re waiting for your French press to steep or for the drip coffee to fill your pot, there’s a pause ― a moment of anticipation. Coffee encourages us to slow down, to savor and, oftentimes, to share. The first coffeehouses in Europe, whether in Venice or London, were dubbed “penny universities” because with a single penny, you could buy a coffee and engage in hours of rich conversation. How many friendships, business ideas or romances have bloomed over a warm cup? 

Contrast this with the sharp, electric jolt of energy drinks. They are products of a new age, aligned with extreme sports and overnight work marathons. Energy drinks are all about immediacy — a quick fix. They answer a modern problem: How do I cram more into an already overflowing day? With an assured dose of caffeine, added vitamins and a concoction of other “energy-boosting” ingredients, energy drinks promise a sustained release of vitality. Many college students believe that promise, associating the consumption of these beverages with heightened alertness and prolonged stamina. 

Yet, the allure of energy drinks for the college demographic isn’t solely in their caffeine percentage or taste — it’s in the culture they’ve created. Companies aren’t just selling a drink; they’re selling an identity. By drinking these products, students feel they’re aligning themselves with a certain lifestyle — one that’s vibrant, active and energetic. The very spirit of energy drinks stems from the idea that college is a phase of life where sleep is optional and burning out is almost a rite of passage. As they gain popularity, they threaten to normalize an unhealthy pace of life for students.

At first glance, these stimulants may seem like a natural evolution in our increasingly fast-paced world. Coming in an easily transportable can, they are undeniably more convenient than a freshly brewed cup of coffee, and with a wide array of flavors, they cater to the ever-changing preferences of Gen Z. 

More than the physical aspects, energy drinks are marketed with a clever touch that reaches the demographic that’s consuming them. Their advertising campaigns often feature young adults leaping from planes, skiing down mountains or dancing until dawn. For example, in 2016, Red Bull released a series of ads called “World of Red Bull.” The marketing strategy featured professional snowboarder Travis Rice and Olympic surfer Carissa Moore claiming drinking Red Bull “gives you wings.”

Companies have also started entering brand deals with celebrities and social media influencers, capitalizing on the enormous outreach of these well-known figures. The amount of sway that social media has cannot be understated. If, suddenly, a popular TikTok influencer starts telling her viewers to buy Celsius, a brand of energy drink, people listen. Maybe we think that drinking the same drink as our favorite influencer will make us more like them, or maybe it’s just a contemporary form of social persuasion; either way, consider us influenced. 

Regardless of the underlying reasons for our susceptibility to persuasion, today’s society is undeniably driven by the desire for quick fixes and immediate rewards. In a world of instant gratification, energy drinks promise prompt and powerful results. 

Coffee, with its ritualistic brewing and slower consumption, represents a more deliberate and paced approach to life. It evokes scenes of cozy coffee shops, old friends catching up or a mystery girl reading a book. It provides not just a caffeine kick, but also a reason for people to come together. However, for students scrambling to meet deadlines, juggling part-time jobs and managing social lives, the promise of immediate energy is enticing. But it’s essential to pause and ask: at what cost?

This shift threatens hundreds of years of discussions shared over a cup of coffee. Coffee shops have long been hubs of social interaction and intellectual discussion. They provide a space to pause and engage with the world. 

Conversely, energy drinks encourage consumption on the go, often in isolation. They’re not about savoring but surviving. Marketing schemes often revolve around pushing yourself to the limit, and even the design speaks of immediacy — pop open a can, chug it and go. There’s no ritual, no brewing time, no communal experience. 

Rising consumption mirrors the growing trend of the relentless hustle and the race against time that many students feel. It’s a sign of larger societal shifts and changing values. While energy drinks may be gaining ground on college campuses, it’s vital to consider the broader implications of this choice, both for individual health and for the fabric of college life. 

As we navigate our way through these transformative years, we need to weigh our choices carefully, recognizing that sometimes, the allure of the new and the flashy might come at the expense of timeless charm. So, next time you find yourself reaching for a Celsius, consider texting a friend and visiting M-36 or Ann Arbor Coffee Roasting Company instead.

Téa Santoro is an Opinion Columnist who writes about college culture and student life. She can be reached at