The History of Collegiate Recovery Programs

Forty years of support for college students in addiction recovery

This fall, students once again returned to colleges and universities all across America.  So too did the problem of college drinking. And, as sure as the changing of the seasons, you are likely to hear news this year about some tragedy involving alcohol, like a drinking-induced death at a fraternity or perhaps a sexual assault where the assailant claims both parties were drunk (and that therefore, the assailant is not responsible). The National Institute on Alcoholism & Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) says alcohol use results in the following problems each year on campuses:
  1. 1,800 student deaths
  2. 600,000 unintentional injuries
  3. 700,000 assaults
  4. 100,000 sexual assaults (although many go unreported, so the number could be higher)
  5. Substance use disorders in 30 percent of college students at some point during their academic career
  6. And lower grade point averages

Despite the constancy of problems caused on campus by drinking and the year-to-year consistency of the statistics, many schools have not done much to address binge drinking. For decades, many people have defined college as a place to get drunk, have sex, watch football and attend a few classes.  As a result, heavy drinking at college became normalized.

One strong but underutilized counterpoint to this unhealthy culture is something called a collegiate recovery program, or collegiate recovery community.

Next year—2017—will mark the 40th anniversary of the creation of the first collegiate recovery program in the world, at Brown University. Over those four decades, we have witnessed the expansion of prevention, treatment and recovery support services on campuses nationwide, but much more expansion is needed. As we advocate for more collegiate recovery communities, with more robust programming, it is worth reflecting on those early programs that continue to pave the way. 


The "Dean of Chemical Dependency"

Dr. Bruce Donovan was a classics professor at Brown University. He had struggled with alcoholism for a few years before finally getting sober in 1972. Soon after, he started helping undergraduates find Twelve Step meetings and helping them deal with some basic recovery issues. In 1977, Brown created a new position for him: "The Dean of Chemical Dependency" (I've shortened the official term, but this is how Dr. Donovan often introduced himself. It is, by far, my favorite title for a college administrative position). For the next 26 years, Dr. Donovan helped students find off-campus counseling (when needed), and find off-campus Twelve Step meetings. He also personally provided those students with non-clinical individual support and academic counseling. He retired in 2003, but the position still exists as an endowed chair.

"But all housing is substance free"

The Yale Center of Alcohol Studies moved to Rutgers in the 1960s. Over the years, the Center of Alcohol Studies became a force in the field of research and training. In 1979, President Edward J. Bloustein created one of the first Alcohol Policy Committees at a university. The committee spurred conversations that eventually led to the hiring of Lisa Laitman in 1983 as the first full-time alcohol and drug counselor in the school's then 217-year history. She was hired to cover the three campuses of Newark, New Brunswick and Camden (about 90 miles apart) and the over 40,000 students that went to school on those three campuses. The man who hired her said, in all seriousness, something to the effect of, "Do you think you'll have enough work to justify the position?"

Ms. Laitman helped many students get into recovery, while others in recovery found her. She had a large recovery group that met at the health center, and they would often talk about how hard it was to deal with all the parties on campus, seeing people drunk, smelling marijuana and hearing people talk about it constantly. Ms. Laitman suggested a separate house for students in recovery. Initially, the students were resistant (they had concerns about anonymity), but eventually they bought into the idea. When Ms. Laitman approached Housing, they protested, "But all housing is substance free." Despite this resistance, Rutgers opened up the first recovery house on a college campus in the world in 1988.

Rutgers provides its students with individual and group counseling services. Each week, there are nine Twelve Step meetings on campus and another 60 within five miles of campus. Students that live in recovery housing have a 3.2 average GPA and a 95% abstinence rate. Rutgers Newark opened their program in 1993 and has a recovery housing program with similar services and outcomes.

College recovery programs spread beyond the northeast

Carl Anderson helped found CSAR (what is now called the Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities, or CCRC) at Texas Tech in 1986. Located in Lubbock, Texas, this was the first college recovery program located outside of the northeast. The Texas Tech program conducted research, offered students academic support, and provided a space for meetings. In the late 1990s, CSAR began offering more counseling services and expanded greatly in size. Dr. Kitty Harris expanded the program, and it has contributed greatly to the collegiate recovery field by collecting data and publishing research. They opened up the housing component of their program in the 2010s. In 2011, Texas Tech created the replication project in order to help other schools create and expand their programs.

In 1997, the Step Up program was created at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Their housing program opened in 1999. For many years, Step Up has had the largest number of students in recovery housing of any school. Step Up students have a GPA average over 3.0 and report a 95% abstinence rate. The program offers a variety of counseling services, academic supports, activities and a large number of service and outreach opportunities. A number of young adults who complete treatment at Hazelden end up at Augsburg. Patrice Salmieri has been the director of the program for most of its existence.

Recovery is contagious: rapid expansion across the U.S.

In the early 2000s, the directors of the Rutgers, Texas Tech and Augsburg recovery programs discovered each other through the internet. They helped found the Association of Recovery Schools (ARS). This organization was originally made up of recovery high schools and colleges and they have held a professional conference each summer since its inception. In 2011, ARS began to focus primarily on recovery high schools and the Association of Recovery in Higher Education was formed to serve the college and university programs.

Case Western Reserve in Ohio opened up their doors in 2004, as did the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Massachusetts. Case Western Reserve chose to have housing, while Texas and Massachusetts provided supports without offering housing. Schools offering a supervised housing program often follow the Rutgers model, while those without typically use the curriculum supplied by Texas Tech to create their programs. As each school, city and state is different, they tend to figure out what model fits it best. No two collegiate recovery programs are exactly alike, even those within the same university system.

Tulsa Community College was the first of its kind to create a recovery program in 2005. Boulder and Vanderbilt also opened up in 2005. Other schools soon followed: Virginia in 2006; Kennesaw State in 2007; Georgia Southern and the College of St. Scholastica in 2008; and William Patterson in 2009. The number of recovery school exploded in the 2010s, and massive universities like Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, Houston, North Carolina and Oklahoma provided expanded services for students in recovery.

A number of programs were started with $10,000 of seed money provided by the Stacie Mathewson Foundation. Ms. Mathewson is a woman whose son struggled with addiction before dying in 2013. Her foundation was particularly instrumental in helping the University of Nevada at Reno get started.

One-size does not fit all

Each school has to deal with its own structure, bureaucracy, and internal politics. Some programs fall under the auspice of the counseling center, while others are run through the counseling center, and still others are overseen by a wellness center or student affairs. The following are aspects of Collegiate Recovery Programs (their presence and intensity vary from campus to campus):

  • On-campus and off-campus meetings – Many programs have on-campus meetings, while all of them have meetings that are available off-campus. Over the years, many students have reported feeling less of a stigma and more accepted when there are other students near their age at Twelve Step meetings.
  • Space on campus – Texas Tech set the standard for providing a space on campus for students to meet, relax, and engage in activities. This space is the primary focus of a large number of collegiate recovery programs.
  • Academic supports – Some schools provide specific academic advising and tutoring for their recovery students.
  • Individual counseling – Almost all of these programs have individual counseling. The frequency varies.
  • Group counseling – Again, the number and frequency of groups vary from campus to campus. Rutgers has had an ongoing early recovery group since 1984.
  • Activities – Rutgers, Augsburg and Texas Tech all found that offering activities greatly helped build the recovery community and reduce relapse rates. The more successful programs have funding for activities and professional staff that organize them.
  • Outreach work – This was Augsburg's forte since their beginning. Other schools have followed their lead on community service and speaking to high school students and in treatment programs.
  • Alumni contacts – Very few college programs are older than 10 years, and as a result, there are not many alumni of recovery programs. People in recovery that graduated from a university are a great resource for current recovery students, and schools that have reached out to those alumni and gotten them to attend activities and support current students have found those alumni to be invaluable.

Changing the college narrative

Twenty years ago, a young person in recovery almost always had to navigate college by themselves. In 1996, the only programs in existence were Brown, Rutgers and Texas Tech. Most professionals in the addiction treatment and recovery field had no idea about those programs. In 2015, New Jersey passed a law that required that every school with over 5,000 students must have a recovery housing component by 2019.

The stigma of addiction is far less and our knowledge of recovery services is far better. Today, more than 100 schools report that they have a collegiate recovery community, and thousands of students who attend them.

Students in recovery who live on a campus without supports have a 20% chance of staying clean and sober. That figure jumps to 80% when students live with other recovery students in supportive housing. Social norming campaigns such as RU Sure at Rutgers and Generation RX at Ohio State fight the culture of college substance abuse. People who have never used substances and those in recovery are finding that campus life and dorm-living are getting more and more focused on non-drinking activities. And recovery supports keep getting better on college campuses, and the world is better for it.

*The work of Alexandre Laudet, PhD, and her colleagues, explores the collegiate recovery support systems in depth.

Frank Greenagel is an adjunct professor at the Rutgers School of Social Work. He is also an instructor at the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and a member of the Hazelden in New York Board of Directors. He writes a blog at greenagel.com. He conducts trainings, consults for programs, and delivers keynote speeches around the country. He completed a Masters in Public Affairs and Politics in 2015. He rejoined the Army in 2014 as a Behavioral Science Officer.


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