Recovering From Addiction To College

By Melissa Brock

Published on July 20, 2021

Recovering From Addiction To College is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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More common than most realize, substance abuse in college students affects many learners. About half of U.S. college students report binge drinking alcohol at least once a month. That amounts to about 2.7 million students.

Drug abuse, including marijuana, also occurs on campuses nationwide. Half of all full-time degree-seekers report using an illicit drug at some time in their lives. Daily marijuana use has increased among college-goers over the past three decades.

College students commonly abuse:

Addiction affects how students learn and become motivated, along with other side effects. Institutions have taken steps to address students' addiction and mental health. Hundreds of schools work to destigmatize mental illness with collegiate recovery programs (CRPs) and collegiate recovery communities (CRCs). These on-campus recovery support programs reinforce learners' decisions to refrain from substance use.

CRPs and CRCs also provide external resources to discourage substance abuse in college students.


Timeline for Starting or Returning to College in Recovery

Students in recovery face many challenges. Relapse can occur without the proper support. The following timeline may help learners successfully start or return to college.

Step 1: Talk with Other Students in Recovery

Current degree-seekers can help provide the framework for community building and social support. They can provide academic support and attend substance-free activities with students. In a campus recovery program, college-goers lean on each other to learn other ways to socialize and cope with stress. Learners support each other as they work to recover from excessive alcohol and other drug use.

Students should:

  • Find other college-goers intentional about their own recovery efforts.
  • Meet degree-seekers ahead of time through prospective campus visits.
  • Meet CRP and CRC group advisors and counseling services personnel in advance.
  • Learn about proactive steps the group takes to implement sobriety.

Students should not:

  • Feel forced to cooperate in on-campus programming by parents or friends.
  • Go to college without a solid support plan in place.
  • Attend college without knowing where to get help.

Step 2: Create an Educational Plan

Students should map out how they'll accomplish their degrees. Degree-seekers and their advisors can break these goals down into smaller chunks to stay on track.

Advisors can set benchmarks for learners at certain intervals to make the overall degree seem more attainable. Advisors or class deans should also remain available to students.

Step 3: Choose the Right School

Individuals need to choose the best school to support their collegiate recovery. The school they choose must offer all the right resources for students in recovery. College counseling provides the resources students need to focus on their education and their sobriety.

Learners and their parents should meet counseling services and student support team staff members. Prospective students and parents can review campus substance use policies. College-goers should consider whether distance from home will affect their recovery efforts.

Step 4: Find the Right Housing

Recovering students may find living in regular residence halls hard because of frequent binge drinking and recreational drug use. College-goers in recovery often find regular dorms isolating or damaging to their sobriety. Many recovering degree-seekers choose campuses with sober housing options.

Learners can remain involved in college activities and student life. Prospective students should research colleges with this option or alternatives to sober living.

Step 5: Pace Yourself

Recovery often needs to happen one day at a time. Students may want to consider a slower pace with their class schedule. Part-time enrollment may better support their recovery. Learners could also mix harder classes with easier classes for a more-balanced course load.

Recovery should remain students' top priority so they can maintain their commitment to recovery throughout their lives. Degree-seekers can spread college classes out over an extra year or two if necessary.

Step 6: Seek and Receive Support

Anyone in recovery faces the risk of relapse. Although the risk of relapse decreases with each year of sobriety, the risk never goes away. The college environment creates additional challenges. Recovering students need access to professional support throughout college. Support can minimize challenges and encourage sobriety and wellness.

Step 7: Stay Organized

Poor time management causes stress. The right schedule and enough rest helps college-goers put their sobriety first.

Students with an upcoming busy school schedule can prepare in advance. Learners may want to tackle a big project in small chunks over time instead of at the last minute.

Degree-seekers avoid overbooking themselves by looking at their schedules in advance. They may want to talk to professors about how to structure class assignments and other responsibilities.

Step 8: Take Time Off

Many students in an academic environment feel pressure and stress. Sober college-goers may feel their sobriety threatened. Learners may need to take a leave of absence. College can wait — health and wellness should take priority.

Developing a relationship with professors makes a difference. Taking time off from schoolwork or major projects can also help, as long as students get permission.

Step 9: Find Substance-Free Campus Activities

Most schools offer substance-free programming. Learners can attend campus comedy shows or theatre productions. College-goers can choose extracurricular activities based on their interests, such as sports teams or fitness clubs. Many campus athletics programs ban alcohol and other substances while in season.

Prospective students in recovery should ask about substance-free campus activities before committing to a school.

Step 10: Join a Collegiate Recovery Community

A CRP or CRC gives students a supportive environment within the campus culture. CRPs and CRCs provide educational opportunities alongside recovery support. The groups make sure degree-seekers can get an education and commit to sobriety.

Not all campuses offer CRPs and CRCs. Students in recovery find support through 142 programs nationwide. The programs use many services, models, and tools to help learners succeed.

Everything You Need to Know About Collegiate Recovery Programs

The first CRPs and CRCs started 40 years ago. CRPs and CRCs focus on the unique needs of students in recovery. They understand the risks these learners face. Each program differs slightly, but overall goals remain the same. Below, find an overview of CRPs and CRCs and their impact on students in recovery.

Q. What are Collegiate Recovery Programs (CRPs) and Collegiate Recovery Communities (CRCs)?

Colleges and universities use the terms CRP and CRC interchangeably. These two organizations describe institutionally sanctioned programs that support students in recovery to achieve their degrees.

CRPs and CRCs offer the chance to experience opportunities, provide support, and focus on academic success. Overall, they aim to reduce substance abuse in college students.

CRPs and CRCs offer:

  • Opportunities to build relationships
  • Classes
  • Retreats
  • Leadership workshops
  • Gender-specific events
  • Health and wellness activities
  • Collegiate recovery conferences
  • 12-step fellowships
  • Campus recovery support groups

Some meetings occur on campus. Some, such as community-building projects, occur off campus.

Q. Who can join a CRP or CRC?

Any student committed to recovery can join a CRP or CRC. Campus communities should allow learners to join regardless of background, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and recovery status.

Degree-seekers should take note that CRPs and CRCs do not function as treatment groups. Nor do they satisfy legal or other disciplinary mandates.

Most groups do not set attendance requirements. They just ask that participants not attend group meetings under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Q. What do we know about the success of CRPs and CRCs?

The Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE) lists the relapse rate of CRPs at just 5%. This means 95% of students participating in these programs maintain their sobriety. The ARHE defines complete sobriety as complete abstinence from drugs, alcohol, and any other addictive substance.

Q. Are all CRPs and CRCs alike?

CRPs and CRCs all differ slightly. CRPs and CRCs may run out of a college's counseling center, student affairs, or wellness center. Students sometimes run these organizations.

Collegiate recovery programs offer similar opportunities for students in recovery by offering general support. This includes addiction counseling and informal hang-outs in a supportive, alcohol- and drug-free environment.

Q. Where can I find schools with established CRPs and CRCs?

The ARHE program database shows schools with established CRPs and CRCs.

Look for the following components in a collegiate recovery program:

  • Dedicated university staff personnel
  • A physical space for meetings and events
  • Abstinence-centered recovery for all students
  • Active peer support
  • Recovery support services

The Transforming Youth Recovery (TYR) community mapping tool helps students find local prevention, treatment, and recovery support resources. TYR gives grants to schools to start collegiate recovery programs.


Strategies for Staying Sober in College

Students may find college sobriety challenging, especially when seeing other college-goers using drugs and alcohol. Learners stay sober with a few preventive measures. See some helpful tips below for staying sober in college.

Join a CRP or CRC
College membership may involve an informal sign-up option. Some universities require students to fill out a membership application. Participants must often actively engage with their recovery plan and maintain involvement with CRC activities.
Identify any co-occurring disorders
People living with addiction may also have co-occurring disorders. An individual may have ADHD or an anxiety disorder in addition to alcohol addiction. The best treatments meet both needs.
Identify stressors that could trigger a relapse
Stressors and emotions can contribute to a relapse. Sadness, anger, loneliness, excitement, anxiety, and fear can all lead to wanting drugs or alcohol. Students should know their triggers to help avoid relapses.
Mind alcohol- or drug-related environments
Physical environments can trigger relapses. A college party might put someone in a situation where they feel they cannot say no. Avoiding certain places can help learners commit to their sobriety.
Get engaged in sober campus activities
College-goers can usually find sober on-campus activities for their interests. Intramural sports, book clubs, and religious activities offer great options. Degree-seekers can start a school organization if one does not already exist.
Respect boundaries and limitations
Students can learn to better protect themselves against unhealthy boundaries. This may present as an inability to tell people "no" or not asking for help. Counseling can help learners avoid anxiety, depression, and addiction cycles. Degree-seekers should learn to define their own personal boundaries.
Manage time effectively
Managing time well can help with addiction recovery. Empty blocks of time will not tempt college-goers to return to addictive habits. Managing time also helps learners avoid overbooking their schedule, which can lead to stress.

Collegiate Recovery Programs

Expert Q&A

Q. What are some useful tips for starting a CRP?

Tim Rabolt: I'd encourage students 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 to our national conference. Connecting with individuals who are already doing the work in the field is the best resource.

Dr. Shadley: If a student knows of an 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 awareness of the value of a 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.

Q. What are some of the growing trends in CRPs?

Tim Rabolt: One of the growing trends is 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. Now, programs are broadening what being in recovery means. We are seeing that different factors contribute to recovery, so we 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 opening up the CRP to more than just people in recovery for substance abuse. We can open the CRP up to 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 and 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.

Q. 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 lock down 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. 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 — do better.

Q. 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. As far as the program itself, 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.

Portrait of Tim Rabolt

Tim Rabolt

Executive Director
Portrait of Dr. Meri Shadley

Dr. Meri Shadley


Essential Resources for Recovering Students

Students should know the resources available to them when college shopping. However, some degree-seekers develop an addiction after starting college. At this point, they may need to learn about available resources at their current institution.

On-Campus Resources

Poor mental health often goes hand-in-hand with substance abuse. College counseling centers offer free mental health and addiction counseling. Students can work through school, work, relationship, and other personal issues that could derail their sobriety. Regular recovery meetings help learners stay committed to recovery and focus on their education. Campus recovery meetings also build a community of support in a peer setting. Sober living options let college-goers share living space with others who choose not to use substances. These other degree-seekers may or may not need to focus on sobriety. CRPs and CRCs often sponsor recovery lounges. The lounges provide on-campus space where members of these organizations can study and collaborate together. Academic advisors should know about advisees in recovery. Advisors can serve as academic resources with an individualized academic approach. They may offer more flexible advising options and creative thinking when students need additional help.

Treatment and Counseling Services

The free, confidential information service runs 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. The service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. The organization serves students facing mental and/or substance use disorders. The large rehab facility network spans California, Florida, Texas, Nevada, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Treatments help clients with drug addiction, alcohol addiction, and mental and behavioral health issues. Learners can use treatment centers for help with their long-term sobriety goals. Psychology Today offers mental health and substance abuse content. Degree-seekers can find detailed listings for mental health professionals nationwide. SMART Recovery addresses addictive problems within the global community. Free group discussion meetings help individuals learn from one another using science-based recovery techniques. College-goers wanting a self-empowered addiction recovery option may use SMART Recovery as another tool to battle addiction.

Recovery Groups Directory

Latest Posts is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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