Timeline for Starting or Returning to College in Recovery
While college can offer the hope of a brighter future, it’s also a big commitment that comes with many stressors. Students in recovery are engaged in a lifelong process of abstaining from drugs or alcohol, focusing on personal health and developing networks of support. When embarking on such a life transition, it’s critical to consider the factors that can put a student in recovery at risk of relapse, such as finances, time management or interpersonal relationships.
Consider the following 10 steps as a timeline to success as a college student in recovery:
Talk with other students in recovery
An important part of recovery is having a strong network of support. Chances are, some of the people in those networks have completed college degrees while sustaining an addiction-free life. Learn from them by sharing concerns, outlining challenges and asking practical questions. A lot can be also learned by interviewing people who were not as successful. What mistakes did they make that you can avoid? Going back to school can be frightening, but others have found ways to achieve academic success along with sustained recovery.
Think it through and create an educational plan.
Planning your educational path is good advice for all students but especially for those in recovery. By creating a plan, students can develop clear goals and objectives to guide them through the many decisions and tasks necessary to enroll in and complete a degree program. Considering where they are in their recovery journey, the plan should help clarify why they are going back to school, the degree they want to pursue, careers in the field of their choice, pre-requisites needed and school costs.
Research and choose the right school.
For students in recovery, factors to consider when choosing a school will go beyond academics to focus on identifying personal sources of stress. For some, leaving family and friends who provide reliable encouragement and structure can be a risk. For others, finances can be crucial. Whatever those sources of stress are, finding a school that can offer affordable tuition, counseling, resources for treatment, on-campus recovery therapy groups, substance-free housing or collegiate recovery communities (CRCs) can foster successful recovery in what can otherwise be a substance‐saturated environment.
Find the right housing
Students in recovery are constantly being exposed to triggers that could hinder their recovery and academic success. Living in a substance-free environment within a supportive and understanding community can decrease stress levels and minimize those triggers. Some colleges offer substance-free housing dedicated to students in recovery. If these options are not available, finding roommates who pursue substance-free lives can be a great alternative.
Finding the right pace for starting or returning to college can lead to positive outcomes and less stress. Start by auditing a class, enrolling in just a few courses or taking online classes. Evaluate course syllabi to gain insight into how challenging and time consuming a class can be – then decide if the class is right for you. Above all else, recovery should remain the top priority.
Seek and receive support.
Support is a critical factor in recovery. Moving away from family, managing new relationships and keeping up with academics while remaining addiction-free in a setting that offers easy access to alcohol and drugs is a major feat. Seek out counseling, especially if other mental health disorders exist. Find support from family, friends or programs, both on and off campus, that can help prevent the negative feelings of being isolated or stigmatized, or the worsening of pre-existing conditions such as anxiety or depression.
Stay organized and avoid overbooking.
Planning continues well after taking those first steps to begin college. Staying organized and maintaining a schedule not only helps manage stressors, it also works to ensure that recovery remains a top priority. Individual and group counseling, 12-step meetings, collegiate recovery community activities and other programs require a commitment of time and energy. Overbooking can force students to choose between missed classes or their recovery efforts, making time management an important element to success inside and outside the classroom.
Take time off when needed.
Developing a thoughtful plan, creating a schedule that prioritizes recovery, seeking support and avoiding triggers can help a student in recovery maintain an addiction-free life but even with all of these elements, life is unpredictable. Pushing through difficult circumstances can be challenging for anyone, but for someone in recovery, overwhelming stress or other negative emotions can lead to an increased risk of relapse. Avoid comparisons to other students who appear to be progressing at a faster pace. Successfully completing a degree will require patience, dedication and the self-awareness to know when some time off and self-care is needed.
Find substance-free campus activities.
College campuses are notorious for the prevalence of alcohol and drugs. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes that 22.2 percent of full‐time college students report using illicit drugs, 39 percent engage in binge drinking, and 13.2 percent use alcohol heavily. Walking into a situation where drugs and alcohol are readily available can put college students in recovery at significant risk for relapse. Seek out sober events that focus on the development of substance-free social networks. According to a recent survey by Transforming Youth Recovery, 74 percent of college respondents reported providing social activities and sober fun. If those are unavailable, consider forming a campus-based, student-driven group that can help fill this gap in services.
Research and join a collegiate recovery community.
Collegiate recovery communities (CRCs) and collegiate recovery programs (CRPs) offer social support and resources specifically for students in recovery. While CRCs and CRPs are not available on all campuses, they have become more prevalent. The Association of Recovery in Higher Education maintains an updated database of more than 140 CRC programs. Initial studies show that CRCs help promote recovery, prevent relapse and improve educational outcomes. In general, students who lack a sense of connectedness in college struggle to stay in school, so creating an environment for students in recovery to feel a sense of belonging is critical.
Everything You Need to Know About Collegiate Recovery Programs
The Collegiate Recovery Program (CRP) movement began in the late 1970s as part of a larger effort to address substance use on campus. Designed to support students as they further their education without jeopardizing their recovery, Collegiate Recovery Communities (CRCs) started at Brown University and Rutgers University. These pioneers paved the way for more fully developed recovery communities at Texas Tech University and Augsburg College in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Today, CRCs and CRPs are appearing on a growing number of campuses across the country.
What are Collegiate Recovery Programs (CRPs) and Collegiate Recovery Communities (CRCs)?
The terms Collegiate Recovery Program (CRP) and College Recovery Community (CRC) are often used interchangeably. They describe college or university supported programs that help students in recovery remain substance-free as they earn their degrees.
CRPs and CRCs help students by providing support from staff and peers, preventing relapse, and promoting academic performance. CRPs and CRCs are available at a swiftly growing number of two-year and four-year campuses across the nation. Especially thanks to the tremendous grant initiative efforts of the Transforming Youth Recovery network, the number of programs has quadrupled in the past few years.
Typical services offered by CRPs and CRCs include:
- A dedicated space on campus
- Academic courses, retreats, leadership workshops, recovery conferences
- Counseling or clinical support by addiction treatment specialists
- Social activities, health and wellness activities and sober social events
- 12-step meetings and recovery support groups
- Peer support
- Campus-based awareness events
- Advocacy efforts
- Transitional living, recovery housing or a sober roommate referral system
Who can be part of a CRP or CRC?
CRPs and CRCs are for students in recovery or for those contemplating recovery. Some CRPs require students to achieve certain academic standards and to regularly participate in recovery-focused activities. CRCs are usually student-driven but having a dedicated faculty or staff member from the university is best practice, according to ARHE. Some CRPs are not limited to students dealing with drug and alcohol misuse; they also serve students with eating disorders or other addictive behaviors.
What do we know about the success of CRPs and CRCs?
According to the ARHE, the national relapse rate for students participating in CRPs or CRCs was 5 percent, meaning that an astounding 95 percent maintain their recovery. Meanwhile, the national relapse rate sits much higher, at 40 to 60 percent according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
CRPs help to increase awareness and education about addiction in the overall campus community, not just students in recovery. They promote the needs of students in recovery, highlight the dangers of substance misuse, provide resources to students who are considering recovery and offer substance-free events that all students can attend. Research has shown that these efforts help shift the typical college culture by normalizing abstinence from alcohol or other drugs.
Are all CRPs and CRCs alike?
Each individual CRP or CRC functions within the context its unique campus community. Student population, campus culture, staff and administrator interest and availability of resources can all impact the design and offerings of a CRP or CRC. For instance, some CRPs require members to fill out an application, maintain a minimum GPA, attend support meetings, or develop individualized recovery plans, while others do not. Some provide recovery housing, while others refer students to substance-free dorms.
While there is no set rulebook for how a CRP should be organized, ARHE does have a set of standards and recommendations for its member programs, including adhering to abstinence-based recovery, maintaining non-profit status, having a paid and trained professional on staff, offering a variety of recovery support services and having a dedicated space for meeting and peer support.
Who provides support to students in CRPs?
Students in CRPs and CRCs receive support from their peers, faculty or staff who are part of the program, and professional addiction specialists and counselors who may be outside the campus community.
Where can I find schools with established CRPs and CRCs?
The Association of Recovery in Higher Education has an online database with more than 140 universities and colleges across the nation that have CRPs. Schools listed in this database have met AHRE standards for CRPs.
Additionally, the Transforming Youth Recovery network offers a comprehensive map of CRPs along with treatment facilities, recovery support groups and mental health services outside of the campus environment across the nation.
My school doesn’t have a CRP or CRC. What can I do to change that?
ARHE offers a variety of resources for students who want to start a CRP at their school. ARHE recommends students do the following before starting a CRP: understand the values and culture of the school; identify existing school resources that can be used for the CRP; develop a mission and vision; decide what type of services the CRP will offer; and find students or staff who will help lead the CRP. CRPs are typically student-led with a dedicated university staff member helping to facilitate. Fundraising efforts can help underwrite the costs of programming.
College Housing for Substance-Free Students
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the relapse rate for substance use disorders is between 40 to 60 percent. Avoiding triggers is critical. Yet college can present stressors for students in recovery, especially since drugs and alcohol are a common presence on many campuses. Choosing the right housing with supportive people can help students maintain an addiction-free life.
Living With Family and Commuting
Students who are attending a school close to their hometown may have the option to stay with their family and commute to classes.
- Family support during recovery
- Relief from financial pressures
- No drastic change in living environment
- Family can be source of stress
- Commute may be long
- Barrier to participating in campus activities
- Feeling disconnected from college
- Drugs and alcohol may still be easily accessible
Transitional Housing Close to School
Transitional housing is typically short-term and doesn’t always offer formal treatment services. They offer sober living environments in co-op style housing and are designed for people who are in recovery. As the name suggests, they can serve as a transitional environment between detoxification or residential treatment and the new college setting.
- Support from others in recovery
- Flexible option before long-term housing commitment
- Alcohol and drug free environment
- Can be affordable
- Can feel disconnected from campus environment
- Roommates are possibly not students
- Transitional housing near college can be difficult to find
- Insurance not typically accepted
Substance-Free Housing on Campus
These dorms serve any student – wheter in recovery or not – who agree to comply with substance-free housing policies. Depending on the school’s resources and student demand, students might simply be paired with others who also request substance-free housing, or they may be placed on a dormitory floor that is entirely substance-free.
- Connected to college campus
- Offers a more typical college experience
- Some substance-free housing communities include social events
- Avoid secondhand effects of substance misuse
- Fellow roommates are not necessarily in recovery
- Drugs and alcohol may still a part of the nearby environment
- Access to treatment and recovery support services might not be as readily available as other housing options
- Not all colleges offer substance-free housing
Recovery housing is located within the college campus and is specifically designed for students in recovery who have made a commitment to an addiction-free life. This option offers a structured, supportive and substance-free environment to help students thrive academically while sustaining their recovery.
- Focuses on recovery and offers recovery support services
- Connected to college campus
- Promising recovery rates – Rutgers University reports 90 to 95 percent of students in recovery housing graduating and a collective 3.2 grade point average.
- Offered at only a few colleges
- Schools that have this program may be unaffordable or difficult to get into
Roommate Referral System
Some college housing programs offer a roommate referral system where students in recovery can connect with their peers. There are also online resources, like My Sober Roomate where students can search for a room, offer a room to fill or find sober living homes.
- Adjustable to budgetary constraints
- Offers more housing options
- Potential of connecting with other students in recovery
- Difficult to verify roommate’s level of commitment to recovery
- Treatment and recovery support services not integrated
- Disconnected from college campus
Spotlight on Colleges with Excellent Recovery Housing
Not to be confused with sober dorms, recovery housing is specifically for students in recovery, offering programs and resources to help prevent relapse. Whereas sober dorms are more common and are available for any student interested in abstinence from drugs or alcohol, recovery housing is hard to find. According to a 2017 survey by Transforming Youth Recovery, less than 1 percent of schools indicated that they offered recovery housing.
These four colleges have made the commitment to offering recovery housing:
Boston College offers an on-campus residential community specifically for students in recovery. Residents can expect to find a structured, supportive and substance-free environment.
Expectations for Students: Students are expected to actively participate in a 12-Step program, develop goals for long-term recovery, abstain from any drugs or alcohol, engage in sponsorship and participate in community service projects. To apply, students must achieve 60 days of sobriety, complete an application, obtain letters of recommendation and submit a personal statement.
The Rutgers Recovery House opened in 1988, making it the first of its kind in the nation. It offers students a 12-month, on-campus housing option that includes both recovery and academic support services. According to Rutgers the community has an average 95 percent recovery rate, and a high average GPA of 3.2.
Expectations for Students: Students must achieve a minimum of three months of sobriety. Those interested in the program need to first contact the school’s Addiction and Other Drug Assistance Program Recovery Counselor and schedule an interview to discuss their commitment to the program. Participating students are expected to have a sponsor, adhere to house guidelines and attend 12-Step meetings at least twice a week.
Housing is part of Augsberg University’s robust StepUP Program, one of the oldest and largest residential CRPs in the country. This substance-free residence hall offers students in the StepUP program weekly meetings with alcohol and drug counselors.
Expectations for Students: Usually, students have to achieve at least six months of continuous sobriety by the move-in date for StepUP housing. Students must commit to an abstinence-based recovery program outside of StepUP. They need to complete an interview with a StepUP Program counselor and submit a recommendation form from a recent treatment counselor or therapist.
Male students seeking recovery support can access Fairfield University’s Recovery House. The house is located in an unmarked building, in walking distance to campus, and includes a live-in house manager. All residents must also be part of the University’s Recovery Program which includes peer support, meetings, dinners, and other fun organized activities.
Expectations for Students: Students have to apply to live in the Recovery House and are required to abide by the standards of the community. Students are not required to be part of the Recovery House to participate in the Recovery Program or to use the Recovery Lounge, a private area for relaxing and studying.
Strategies for Staying Sober in College
Abstaining from drugs and alcohol in college is possible for any student with a concerted effort. By engaging in CRPs and applying a few sound methods to avoid substances, college can be a time of great academic and personal growth.
Join a CRP or CRC
Research backs the idea that peer support within the college community is critical to success in recovery. As a bonus, CRPs/CRCs are free of cost.
Identify any co-occurring disorders
Students in recovery may be dealing with mental health problems intertwined with substance misuse disorder. Working with counseling professionals to help address depression, anxiety or other mental health issues decreases the chance of relapse.
Identify stressors that could trigger a relapse
In addition to underlying mental health issues, stressors such as finances, schoolwork or interpersonal relationships can lead some students to return to unhealthy coping patterns. Use a journal, talk to a friend or family member and access a counselor to help identify personal stressors and methods to cope.
Be aware of alcohol- or drug-related environments
Many college activities and events are flush with alcohol and drugs. Sporting events, tailgating, Greek life, even just grabbing dinner with friends, can all be landmines to a student in recovery. Knowing the risks involved, a student can either avoid these activities or bring a trusted friend who can ensure accountability and support.
Get engaged in sober campus activities
Avoid feeling isolated and alone by connecting with campus life. Student government along with a host of clubs and organizations offer a wide variety of opportunities to enrich the college experience. From religious to cultural to sports to arts and more, students in recovery can develop relationships with students with shared interests.
Respect boundaries and limitations
Setting clear boundaries and limitations can help to ensure that recovery is a top priority. This will mean taking a break when needed, avoiding certain social activities or environments that are abstinence-hostile, cutting ties with people who are unsupportive, or even dropping out of a class that is overwhelming.
Manage time effectively
Being a student in recovery in college can be a tough challenge but excellent time management can make the journey easier and more fulfilling. Maintain a daily schedule, carving out time exclusively for recovery activities in addition to academic work and social events. Keep an eye out for too much downtime or an overcrowded schedule. Using this visual of daily events can help students organize and monitor where their time is being used and how.
Expert Q&A on Collegiate Recovery Programs
Tim Rabolt's Bio
Executive Director, Association of Recovery in Higher Education
Tim Rabolt started off as an ARHE conference attendee and worked his way up from being a student member, a student representative on the Board, Treasurer on the Executive Board, outside consultant, Director of Community Relations, and now Executive Director. Prior to joining ARHE, Tim worked in the DC area as a Project Manager with Altarum, a public health research and consulting organization. He’s been in recovery since April of 2011.
Dr. Meri Shadley's Bio
Dr. Meri Shadley
Director, Nevada’s Recovery and Prevention Program - University of Nevada, Reno
Dr. Shadley has spent nearly 40 years treating individuals and families with relationship, trauma, and addictive disorder concerns. Besides providing therapy and clinical supervision in her private practice, she has taught and coordinated academic programs at the University of Nevada, Reno and is the Director of NRAP (Nevada’s Recovery and Prevention Program) a collegiate recovery program that started in 2011. Dr. Shadley has presented and published on topics related to treating families, substance use disorders, and recovery within a college community
What are some useful tips for starting a CRP?
Tim Rabolt: I’d encourage them to go to our website and reach out to us. We connect them to different program staff who can walk them through the process. They can come out to our national conference. Just getting connected to the individuals who are already doing the work in the field is the best resource.
Dr. Shadley: If a student knows of any interested faculty person, they could offer to run a 12-Step or other kind of meeting. If you’re a faculty person, you could set it up. For NRAP, a student and myself started it. Because we had information about Texas Tech, we went through their materials and saw what we should do. There are resources you can find to start small and create the awareness of the value of CRP. If you can find someone in the community who can donate to the university to support this, the university will then do it. It doesn’t cost that much to start a CRP but if you can get someone in the community to support the beginning of it, that helps.
What are some of the growing trends in CRPs?
Tim Rabolt: Some of the growing trends are the general definition of what it means to be in recovery. Before, the only understanding of that term was the one adopted by 12-Step programs but now programs are broadening what being in recovery means. We are seeing that different factors contribute to recovery and are working to support students with different backgrounds that make them unique, such as veterans, LGBTQ students, international students or first-generation students.
Dr. Shadley: Probably the biggest trend – one that we were on the cutting edge of when we first started – is not just opening up the CRP for people in recovery for substance abuse but opening it up for people in recovery for a variety of things like eating disorders or mental health issues because a lot of times they are co-occurring. The other trend is having sober students who are allies who have chosen to become sober because they are concerned that it could become a problem, or they’ve had family members who’ve struggled or they have a religious or cultural sense that you don’t use substances.
What is the biggest gap in CRP services?
Tim Rabolt: The biggest gap is the level of staff support that’s ideally needed for the number of students the program can potentially serve. Funding is also tough for schools to lockdown for sustainability. Schools can do a lot with around $100,000 a year to hire a staff member, a student assistant and a small travel and activities budget. And there’s a pretty significant return because the students in recovery are involved on campus, graduating and doing well in classes so it’s a smart investment for a school.
Dr. Shadley: It’s not a gap in services itself, it’s more a gap in that every college should have something like this. Campuses and administration should see that this is a population that is really going to benefit the university if you help them find their peers. What we know is that when students are attached to their university they do better in college, their grades improve, and they graduate at higher rates than the general population of students. If you even just have a CRC without staff involvement, the students and therefore the college does better.
Can parents or friends be part of CRPs?
Tim Rabolt: CRPs are mostly just for students and staff. Some are more open, usually the community itself is more inclusive where allies, other staff and neighboring schools can participate with families but as far as the program it’s generally solely for students.
Dr. Shadley: It depends on the CRP, but typically family is not the center focus of a CRP. Some colleges, including ours, do look at what they can do to include families. We want to find ways to try to include families without overstepping boundaries.
Scholarships for Students Recovering from Addiction
According to the CollegeBoard, median tuition and fee prices for public, in-state four-year institutions was $10,230 in 2018-19. While a degree from an institute of higher education can come with steep price tag, accessing scholarships offered specifically to students in recovery can ease that financial burden.
- Addiction and Recovery Scholarship
Students attending an accredited institute of higher education are eligible. Applicants must submit a short essay describing how they have fought, or plan to fight, against substance abuse and addiction.
Scholarship Amount: $500See Scholarship Details
- Alcohol Addiction Awareness Essay Contest
To apply, students must be at least 18 years old and enrolled full-time in a U.S. undergraduate or graduate program. Students must submit an essay that addresses how they think alcohol abuse affects society and what steps can be taken to reduce this impact.
Scholarship Amount: $6,000 each year to three studentsSee Scholarship Details
- Whitney Law Firm Opioid Crisis Scholarship
Eligible students must plan to attend or be enrolled in college, law school or graduate school. They also must have a GPA of at least 3.0. Applicants must include a resume, an unofficial transcript, and an essay discussing how the opioid crisis has personally affected them and how the problem can be alleviated in their community.
Scholarship Amount: $1,500See Scholarship Details
- Northpoint Recovery College Scholarship
Northpoint seeks applications from US students who enrolled in post-secondary education in the upcoming semester. To apply, students must submit an essay that describes how substance abuse addiction has affected their life.
Scholarship Amount: $1,000See Scholarship Details
- The Alpine Recovery Lodge Scholarship Essay Contest
This award is given out twice a year. High school seniors, undergraduate and graduate students are welcome to apply. Applicants must be a resident of Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona or Nevada. To apply, students must submit an essay detailing how addiction has directly affected them.
Scholarship Amount: $1,000See Scholarship Details
- The Recovery Village Health Care Scholarship
To be eligible, students must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, enrolled or accepted in an accredited college or university and plan to continue enrollment. Winners must consent to a talent release and be willing to provide a digital photograph and quote for display on Advanced Recovery Systems websites.
Scholarship Amount: $1,000See Scholarship Details
- American Addiction Centers’ Behavioral Health Academic Scholarship
Full- or part-time college undergraduate or graduate students enrolled in nursing, counseling, psychology, social work, marriage/family therapy, or other curriculum focusing on treatment of mental health and substance use disorders are welcome to apply. Students must have a GPA 3.2 or above and submit an essay discussing the challenges that keep people from getting addiction treatment, and how this can be changed.
Scholarship Amount: $5,000 or $2,500See Scholarship Details
- Help End Drug Addiction Scholarship
Undergraduate and graduate students who have at least a 3.0 GPA and are residents of the U.S. or Canada are welcome to apply. Eligible students must submit an essay discussing their ideas on how to help conquer the substance abuse epidemic. Students can use personal or witnessed experiences.
Scholarship Amount: $1,000See Scholarship Details
Essential Resources for Recovering Students
Students in recovery have access to a wide variety of resources to help them maintain an addiction-free life. From on-campus resources to online help, the list below can guide students to essential recovery support services.
Counseling. Most colleges offer counseling services for students, including mental health screenings, individual and group therapy, psychological testing and referrals.
Recovery Meetings. Students can typically find recovery meetings such as 12-Step programs on college campuses with CRCs or CRPs.
Sober living or recovery housing options. Contact residential services to explore options for students in recovery.
Recovery lounges. CRPs have dedicated space for meetings, that are often used for relaxing, socializing or studying when meetings aren’t in session.
Academic advising. Campus academic advising can provide students with pathways toward academic success, tutoring and other support services.
Locating Treatment & Counseling Services
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline. SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP, is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year information service that provides referrals to local treatment facilities and support groups.
American Addiction Treatment Centers. This online resource provides information about treatment centers, different treatment models, the unique signs, symptoms and treatments for various substances, as well as help finding free or affordable treatment options.
Psychology Today. Use this site to find detailed listings of licensed mental health professionals and services, including therapists, psychiatrists, treatment centers, and support groups.
SMART Recovery®. Self-Management Recovery Training helps people recover from all types of addictive behaviors. This site offers a wide variety of resources including webinars, a SMART toolbox with methods, worksheets, and exercises, and information about in-person and online meetings.