How Colleges Can Support Students Recovering from Substance Abuse

The key to sobriety is giving students experiences that go beyond pub-crawling or tailgating.
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Roughly 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports. And the number using illicit drugs has risen from 34 percent in 2006 to 43 percent in 2016, the highest it has been in three decades.

Photo by Andersen Ross/Blend Images/Getty Images 

During her senior year at Rutgers University, Jessica (name changed for privacy) spent a lot more time drinking than going to class. Once a promising student, she now saw her grades dropping. The only time she left her apartment was to hit a bar or stock up at the liquor store. She knew things in her life were deteriorating, but she didn’t seek help.

“I was in such denial. I didn’t realize I had a problem,” she explains. “I thought, ‘Hey, I’m in college, this is what every college kid is supposed to be doing, like skipping class and partying.’”

Roughly 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports. And the number using illicit drugs has risen from 34 percent in 2006 to 43 percent in 2016, the highest it has been in three decades.

Some colleges are tackling this problem head on with collegiate recovery programs and communities. Typically, these programs provide students in recovery with addiction counseling, support groups, and substance-free social activities. More established programs like Rutgers, Texas Tech, and Augsburg University offer dedicated meeting space and residence halls committed to sober living.

When Rutgers opened its residential recovery housing on campus in 1988, it was one of the first of its kind, and other colleges followed suit. “In the late ’90s and [early] 2000s, there was this kind of boom, and there continues to be exponential growth,” says Tim Rabolt, director of community relations at the Association of Recovery in Higher Education, who counts close to 300 schools today that offer recovery support services.

A springboard to success

Collegiate recovery programs generally expect applicants to sign a code of conduct to abstain from all substances, adhere to safe behaviors, and hold other members of the community accountable. Program features can include weekly community check-ins, on-campus 12-step meetings, access to lounge and study spaces, and service work opportunities.

Instead of tailgating on game days or pub-crawling on St. Patrick’s Day, students can find camaraderie in substance-free activities like bowling, canoeing, laser tag, hiking, and movies. During game season at the University of Oregon, sports fans can attend sober watch parties in a catered tent. Some recovery programs at other schools offer experiences like a mountain climbing trip (University of Houston) and a study abroad program with destinations like Prague (Texas Tech).

This model is so effective because it’s peer-driven, says Lisa Laitman, director of the Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program at Rutgers University, who created the on-campus recovery support community three decades ago. The program offers students a supportive environment in what is typically known as “a recovery-hostile environment.”

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In a nationwide survey published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, researchers found that students in collegiate recovery programs have overwhelmingly positive outcomes. They have low relapse rates, higher GPAs than average, and are more likely to stay in college and graduate. In fact, they reported up to 95 percent of participating students are able to sustain their sobriety while attending school.

“That’s impressive and surprising to a lot of folks because the misconception is ‘Oh, this student battled drug addiction, they’re not going to be successful,’” Rabolt says. “That data shows that students in recovery involved in the program are the ideal student because they’re engaged, healthy, and giving back in service.”

The path to sobriety

In the fall of 2015, Carly Chorba, an engineering student at University of Michigan, was going to her classes high and knew that she was “going down a bad road” by isolating and turning to alcohol and painkillers. She tried unsuccessfully to get sober on her own for months. She admits she was severely depressed and failing school.

Finding her school’s collegiate recovery program in February 2016 was a turning point—and marked the start of her sobriety. Her counselor helped her clear all substances out of her room and she went to her first meeting. Soon, she was making new friends who were as committed to sobriety she was.

“It was the life preserver I needed when I was drowning,” she says. “I feel like I’m supported there. There are people who would do anything to help me and know how to help me. It’s a safe space for us no matter what’s happening in our lives.”

“It was the life preserver I needed when I was drowning.”

The primary intervention is creating community so that students in recovery can support each other, says Matt Statman, collegiate recovery program manager at University of Michigan. “The big goal is that this is a place—a physical, emotional, spiritual space on campus—where students in recovery can socialize with people who have the same goals and are facing some of the same challenges. It’s a community thing.”

For Chorba, this community has made all the difference. In April 2017, she became the first in her family to graduate from college, and she has stayed involved with the program as an alum. “Honestly, it’s the only reason I graduated and I’m here today,” she says. “It’s like a family. No matter what struggles you’re going through, you’re always welcomed back.”

After taking five months off from school and seeking help at an extended care treatment facility, Jessica re-enrolled at Rutgers and moved into the Recovery House. She graduated this past May with a degree in economics and statistics and is confident the friendships she made at the Recovery House will follow her into the future.

“Little did I know a big piece of my life was missing,” she adds. “I didn’t realize how much I had been missing out on until I moved into the house and had relationships with other people who are my age in recovery.”

The future of campus recovery

In January, the state of New Jersey announced that Rutgers along with three other state-funded colleges would receive $5 million to expand campus recovery treatment services. It was the first state to pass legislation in 2015 that required four-year public colleges and universities to provide substance abuse recovery housing.

Research of collegiate recovery programs is limited, so there are unanswered questions about how well students are able to sustain their sobriety after graduation.

Regardless, a strategy is needed to derail the addiction process, especially during the crucial period between late adolescence and emerging adulthood, says Alexandre Laudet, a researcher at the nonprofit National Development and Research Institutes, Inc. in New York City. She says collegiate recovery programs can help students move toward sobriety, higher education, and productive careers while avoiding medical and other costs associated with addiction.

Without a support system in place with trained counselors and peers, the odds are high that students in recovery will relapse. “Students shouldn’t have to choose,” Laudet says, “between their recovery and their education.”

Editor’s note: A previous version reported that Chorba graduated college this year. It has been corrected to reflect April 2017.