Collegiate Recovery Programs: Keeping the Door to Opportunity Open

This article is by Sierra Castedo and published by Recovery Connection


There are two ways to think about college, both equally prevalent in our cultural knowledge of the subject. The first is about doors opening: doors to opportunity for economic advancement and financial security, and doors to a deeper understanding of one’s own true self. The second conceptualization of college is also about discovery, but of a different kind: the discovery of substances, usually alcohol, sometimes drugs. For college students who already discovered and found themselves imprisoned by substances, the excesses of drug and alcohol use associated with college can loom so large that they eclipse the promise of opportunity and self-actualization that college also represents.

For students in recovery from addiction, attending college may seem too risky or unattainable, especially a traditional college experience involving on-campus residence and full-time attendance.  Since 1977, colleges have sought ways to support students in recovery from addiction, allowing them to have a more normative college experience free from alcohol and other drugs. These collegiate recovery programs are scattered across the country at colleges and universities large and small. These programs provide a ready-made community of support to provide a solid foundation for students in recovery. Typical activities within these communities may include peer support meetings (12-step, SMART Recovery, and many more), educational seminars (some of which are for academic credit), and sober social activities. Some programs offer scholarships, early access to course registration, counseling services, and specialized academic advising programs. A few programs (about 20%1, though this number is in flux) even offer on-campus residences exclusively for students in recovery. These programs develop within and are reflective of the unique campus culture of their home institution, thus variation is expected between programs. As variable as these programs may be in what they offer and how they are structured, the core commonality remains: these are places on campus where recovery is actively celebrated and normalized.

Collegiate recovery programs work. A National Institutes of a Health-funded study of 486 students participating in 29 different collegiate recovery programs across the country corroborated earlier, single-program studies of the effectiveness of these supports. The study found that relapse rates across the 29 surveyed programs were only 8% (with a range of between 0% and 25%)2. Further, academic achievement, measured by GPA and graduation rates, surpassed the institution’s overall outcomes2.  The study also found that two-thirds of students based their enrollment decisions on whether or not their university had a collegiate recovery program, and 72% of those students would not have attended college without a collegiate recovery program3. Not only do these programs improve individual student success, but they can act as recruitment tools for colleges and universities, as well.

Though the very first program was established in 1977, and the longest-running program was established in 1983, the growth of the collegiate recovery field has been slow throughout much of its history4. Fewer than 10 collegiate recovery programs were in existence at the time my home institution’s program, The Center for Students in Recovery at The University of Texas at Austin, was founded in 2004. The latest count – compiled in a soon-to-be-published directory by Recovery Campus Magazine with help from the Association of Recovery in Higher Education and Transforming Youth Recovery – lists approximately 170 programs or fledgling efforts to date. Much of that growth has occurred within the past five years. Nation-wide efforts combined with several state-wide initiatives have helped to fuel this growth. In 2012 the University of Texas System Board of Regents approved funding for an initiative to establish programs like its UT Austin Center for Students in Recovery at each of its academic campuses5, extending and expanding this funding in 20156. Two state-wide initiatives were undertaken by the Governors of North Carolina and Arizona in 2014 and 2015, respectively7,8. In 2013, the Stacie Mathewson Foundation created Transforming Youth Recovery, which, as part of its activities to promote recovery and prevention in young people, worked to provide 100 seed grants of $10,000 each to establish new collegiate recovery programs. These seed grants contributed greatly to exponential growth in the number of collegiate recovery programs nationally and helped lend additional support to the state-driven initiatives.

While this exponential growth in recent years is encouraging, there is still much work to be done. When people in recovery weigh the risks against the benefits of going to college, the presence of a collegiate recovery program can help shift the balance in favor of a higher education. With over 4,000 colleges and universities across the country, the 170 or so collegiate recovery programs represent a minority of institutions of higher education equipped to welcome these students. Existing programs need continuing support to maintain their presence on campus and build greater capacity, particularly as we seek to support the young people swept up in the opioid epidemic.

Chances are high that you have a collegiate recovery program in your state, possibly even in your local area. Visit the Association of Recovery in Higher Education’s (ARHE) website for a list of member programs, or view the map created by Transforming Youth Recovery, which includes both members of ARHE and programs that have not yet become members. Please consider reaching out to your regional representative of ARHE to see how you can get connected to an existing collegiate recovery program in your area, how you can help the movement nationally, or how you can help bring a program to your local college or university. Those seeking further reading may wish to visit ARHE’s scholarly rationale page or a literature review9–12.

People in recovery already are on a journey of restored opportunity and self-actualization. A higher education represents just such a journey, too. Collegiate recovery programs help ensure that both of those doors stay open.

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