Collegiate recovery programs gain traction on campus
As an undergraduate at Christopher Newport University in Virginia almost two decades ago, Kristina Canfield felt helpless. She struggled with substance use disorder and had a difficult time staying away from substances, she said—especially living on campus, where drinking and drug use were almost synonymous with socializing.
Worst of all, Canfield said, was that the university wasn’t equipped to help her navigate those obstacles. She was reprimanded for violating student conduct multiple times for her substance use and was even kicked off campus at one point.
“I can distinctly recall seeking help, and people on my campus at the time not knowing what to do with me,” she said. “There was this very punitive approach. I felt like a liability on campus.”
So during her junior year, she dropped out.
Not much has changed since Canfield’s time; students with substance use disorder are still more likely to drop out without adequate institutional support. A 2016 report from the Center on Young Adult Health and Development argues that on-campus resources are crucial for students looking to get or stay sober, because off-campus resources “are not tailored to address the unique set of challenges college students face.”
“The college social environment can pose significant challenges for students in recovery, especially in settings where drinking and drug use define the environment,” the report reads. “In the face of such challenges, many young people in recovery find themselves choosing between recovery and staying in school.”
Meanwhile, substance misuse has risen steadily in the last decade, according to a 2019 study in the Journal of Lifelong Learning in Psychiatry. Institutions have responded to this increase in various ways, from putting more Narcan kits on campuses to hiring mental health counselors who specialize in addiction recovery. One increasingly common solution has been to establish collegiate recovery centers.
CRCs—sometimes known as collegiate recovery programs or communities—are different from sober living residences or on-campus 12-step programs. They are robust resources for students struggling to overcome substance use issues, whether they’re in long-term recovery or freshly on the wagon. Some offer scholarships for students in recovery, dedicated staff and counselors, and a vibrant calendar of sober social activities. Others may only employ one part-time staffer and gather students together for meetings in a space shared with other student groups.
Regardless, they are a crucial resource for students struggling with substance use issues in a challenging environment, said Tom Bannard, director of the Rams in Recovery program at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“We’re really providing robust support for students that have a really serious disease and are in recovery from that, which is pretty different from the interventions that are much more common on college campuses, that are focused on early intervention,” he said.
Canfield is now 17 years sober, and she has spent many years working in the field of addiction recovery since she graduated from college. Eventually, she found her way to Ohio University, where supportive faculty helped her stay in recovery as she completed first her bachelor’s degree, then a master’s in college student personnel. But Canfield said she knew students in recovery needed—and deserved—more. As a graduate student, and with the help of some of the faculty members who shared her passion for addiction recovery, she helped establish OU’s first collegiate recovery community in 2012.
Now Canfield is working to bring on-campus recovery services to college students across the country. She is the director of the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE), an organization that serves as a nexus for all collegiate recovery programs in the U.S.
That group has grown significantly over the past decade—from about a dozen programs in 2012 to 149 as of this year.
Increased support from the federal government has helped bolster such efforts. Under President Trump, a commission on drug addiction and the opioid crisis sent an open letter to college and university administrators encouraging them to establish CRCs. And in April, President Biden called for a 25 percent increase in collegiate recovery programs by 2025 in a report outlining his goals for the national drug-control strategy.
Still, everyone who spoke with Inside Higher Ed for this article said that while progress has been heartening, there is still a great deal of stigma around addiction and recovery.
“I’m always a little taken aback every time another college administrator says something along the lines of, ‘We can’t start that program because we don’t want those students here,’ or ‘If we do that, we’re admitting we have a drug problem,’” Canfield said. “But it’s also been a joy to watch how the conversation has changed around addiction and recovery in my 12 years in the field. We are more open to talking about it as a society, and I think we’re seeing that reflected in higher education.”
Tools for Surviving the ‘Lion’s Den’
In its 2017 open letter to colleges and universities, the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis called college campuses a “lion’s den” for students in recovery.
“It is not surprising that researchers have characterized higher education campuses as ‘abstinence-hostile environments,’” the letter read. “As more young people find recovery in their teens, they and their parents face the challenge of identifying a college or university that will not put their recovery at risk.”
“If you don’t have structured support, then people walk around campus thinking, ‘Oh, I’m the only person that has this experience.’ And there’s a fair amount of people that have that experience,” said Bannard. “A big part of collegiate recovery programs [is] making sure students with substance use disorder know they’re not alone and can build community with their peers.”
Bannard identifies as a person in recovery and has long worked as an addiction counselor. After struggling with substance use and some resulting legal trouble as an undergraduate, Bannard dropped out of the University of Virginia during his senior year. He said the main reason he felt able to come back and finish his degree in 2007, after getting sober, was thanks to UVA’s small collegiate recovery community, one of only a handful that existed at the time.
Canfield said that administrators are often skeptical about the value of a recovery center because they tend to underestimate the number of students who struggle with substance abuse. According to a 2018 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one in seven young adults aged 18 to 25 meets the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder; according to Canfield, national research suggests that among college students specifically, that number is closer to one in four.
But even if the population served was much smaller, Canfield said, CRCs should still be a crucial part of any campus’s physical and mental health resources.
“It’s not just about a population of students in or seeking recovery. We’re talking about campus well-being,” she said. “That’s a huge focus right now, creating these healthy campuses for our students. Supporting recovery is part of that.”
Spreading the Gospel
The collegiate recovery center at Texas Tech University wasn’t the first in the country—that would be Rutgers University’s recovery program, founded in 1983—but it is considered by many in the field to be the gold standard.
Founded in 1986 as the Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery, Texas Tech’s program, now called the Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities, helped promote CRCs long before the ARHE existed. In fact, the ARHE was established at the first national collegiate recovery conference in 2010, held at TTU’s Lubbock, Tex., campus. Under longtime director Kitty Harris, the CCRC received a federal grant in 2004 to help replicate its model at other institutions. Out of that grant came the Collegiate Recovery Communities Curriculum, a kind of bible that pioneers at other colleges and universities have used to set up their own programs since 2005.
The most well-funded collegiate recovery programs offer scholarships for students in recovery and dedicated residential space on campus that is not only substance-free, but occupied by students recovering from substance use disorders. Texas Tech’s program, which serves hundreds of students, also has dozens of dedicated staff members including academic advisers, a beautiful three-story building in the middle of campus with its own computer lab and study spaces, and even its own study abroad program in Prague.
Ann Casiraghi, the CCRC’s program director, said many students in recovery come to TTU from all over the country because they know they’ll have the support they need to succeed, making it a valuable recruitment tool for underserved students. Many alumni go on to establish or help run other collegiate recovery programs around the country.
Casiraghi herself is one such alumna. Like most people working in the collegiate recovery field, she’s in long-term addiction recovery. In her mid-40s, not long after getting sober, she decided to go back to college. She received a scholarship from the CCRC at Texas Tech, giving her both the financial means and recovery support she needed to complete her long-abandoned degree.
“It provides a real opportunity and structure and process for students in recovery to build a sense of community, accountability and identity,” Casiraghi said. “There should be a collegiate recovery program on every campus in the U.S.”
Work to Be Done
Though collegiate recovery centers have proliferated in recent years, they are still few and far between at U.S. institutions—as students who struggle with substance use disorder are aware. In a recent Inside Higher Ed Student Voice survey, students who identify as having both specific mental health struggles and substance use issues were most likely to give their institution’s counseling and support resources a grade of D or F.
Freddie Shegog likely would have given his institution a failing grade as well. He was in and out of recovery for years while trying to earn his bachelor’s degree, first from Delaware County Community College and then as a transfer student at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, but his struggles with substance use prevented him from focusing; he dropped out and re-enrolled six times. During his lowest points, he was often homeless, dumpster diving for meals and getting high on expired asthma inhalers.
Neither DCCC nor West Chester have an official collegiate recovery center. Shegog said that without the help of a particularly sympathetic adviser, he’s not sure he would’ve made it.
“They didn’t have the resources for someone like me to succeed,” he said. “It felt like they don’t see the individual so much as they see a tuition check.”
After six years of sobriety, Shegog finally graduated summa cum laude from West Chester in May. Now he travels the country speaking about his path out of addiction, often to college students in recovery programs.
Shegog, who is Black, said that the growth in collegiate recovery programs has been largely centered on predominantly white institutions, and that more work needs to be done to support college students of color struggling with substance dependency.
“I don’t speak in the slums. My speaking money comes from rich, white schools, because now there’s an opioid problem there,” Shegog said. “Where was this energy at state schools during the crack epidemic [of the 1990s]?”
Canfield said that while some HBCUs are working to set up collegiate recovery centers, at community colleges and other less traditional institutions, the lack of resources is prohibitive. Colleges with less money, or without a vested donor to endow a center, have a harder time providing the kind of robust recovery programs—dedicated space and staff, namely—that institutions like Texas Tech have established.
“Addiction doesn’t discriminate; access to resources does,” Canfield said. “[ARHE] members are primarily on well-funded, four-year public university campuses … I think there are many administrators out there who want to support recovery on their campus, but it just isn’t a funding priority for their institution.”
One growing area of alternative support for centers at underfunded institutions is state grants. West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Washington and a slew of other states have introduced grants for institutions looking to establish recovery programs and expand resources for students with substance use disorders.
Renton Technical College in Washington State is one such institution. Thanks to a state grant awarded at the end of 2021, RTC was able to establish a “Wellbriety Center” on campus, where students in recovery could go for sober social events, a library of books on addiction, naloxone kits and fentanyl testing strips. It also allowed the college to give out scholarships to students in recovery—$10,000 last year.
Jack Shultz, the grants director at RTC, said it’s particularly important for technical and community colleges to have recovery resources for the students pursuing a degree to improve difficult life circumstances, whether that’s homelessness, incarceration or drug and alcohol addiction.
Noel Vest is a formerly incarcerated postdoctoral fellow at Stanford specializing in substance use disorders and recovery, whose latest research focuses on outcomes at higher education recovery programs. He said that because incarceration and substance use disorder so often go hand in hand, those emerging from the system often find it hard to pursue a degree and re-enter the workforce due to the lack of recovery support on campuses.
“For me, going back to school was about getting back on my feet and having a career that I could take care of my family with,” said Vest, who works closely with Stanford’s Cardinals in Recovery program and is in long-term recovery himself. “When we think about collegiate recovery programs, we need to be thinking about making these spaces accessible and inviting to people with incarceration histories.”