How long does a young adult need to be in treatment before enrolling in or returning to college? How many days, weeks, or months of sobriety should a young adult have before they are “college ready?” 

Although statistics will tell you that one year of sobriety in a treatment continuum is often the ticket to a lifetime of recovery, the short answer is that there is no guarantee to sobriety. Especially when we’re talking about college-aged young adults, it’s hard to wrap anyone’s head around the idea of forever. Having this information makes the process of when to return to or enroll in college a challenging subject. 

Even with the most solid recovery foundation, a young adult may find themselves in a compromising situation while participating in typical college activities such as sporting events, student group activities, study groups, etc. Transition is hard no matter the situation. And we know the old adage that the opposite of addiction is connection. When you land in a new environment, it’s hard sometimes to immediately find connection. For those in recovery, that will be the make or break of them remaining motivated in their recovery as students.

Students will be more successful in maintaining sobriety when their environments have fewer triggers present and the students are truly motivated in their recovery. How can a student set up an environment and support network to maximize the probability of a successful and sober transition? Setting students up for success will involve detailed and advanced planning. The conundrum is: do you pick a college first and then seek out local recovery resources on and off campus, or do you find an established, nationally known off-campus recovery community to engage with, and then enroll in whichever local institutions exist nearby? The key is to select what makes the most sense for the student’s needs. It’s not a one-size-fits-all admissions recommendation process, as there are several factors that need to be considered.  

Here’s where this gets tricky. More often than not, parents will be driving a timeline to return (or enroll) and they’ll be college-focused, rather than recovery-focused. This is a pretty common situation, and a common challenge for college educational consultants and therapeutic educational consultants alike. From the college consultant lens, conversations about the importance of the recovery community will be key to the college selection. From the therapeutic consultant lens, conversations about “college not going anywhere” are regularly happening. At the end of the day, we have to collectively fight for the safety, well-being, and success of the student. The last thing any professional working with this family wants is to see the student relapse and drop out.

When you find yourself navigating such situations, consider these five steps to a “best fit” in collegiate recovery.

Step 1: Surround the student with a recovery community.

Fight for this because it needs to be the priority! If the family invested a lot of money into treatment, we want to make sure the college search process prioritizes matching the student with a recovery community. Now, what even is a recovery community? A robust recovery community may include:

  • Multiple, weekly young-people’s recovery meetings in close proximity to campus (AA, SMART, Refuge, Dharma, etc.)
  • A sponsor
  • Sober fun events on and off campus
  • A licensed therapist who is also an addictions counselor
  • A psychiatrist if medication management is part of the recovery process

Most colleges do not provide all of these services directly on campus; therefore, it is imperative that the student and parents ensure that all aspects of a robust recovery community are accessible. This will provide the necessary structure and consistency they need to find continued success in their sobriety; only then will students be able to work towards achieving academic success, finding social-emotional wellness, and increasing their sense of independence. Let’s help students find their safe place. 

Some recovery programs that just so happen to be close to college campuses include Alpha 180 (University of Texas), Green Hill Recovery (NC State), The Haven at College (USC and others), and TreeHouse Learning Community (Arizona State University).

Step 2: Decide if the student is ready to do college-level work. 

Is it more appropriate for the student to take a class or two while acclimating to their new recovery community, or is the student ready to enroll in a part-time or full-time course load? Frequently, there is an invisible pressure to reenter college more quickly than a student is ready for due to pressure from outside influences (parents, peers, social media, and more). It’s important to take small steps first. Don’t give in to the temptation to run before you’re ready to walk! Again, college isn’t going anywhere.

Step 3: Identify supports on campus. 

If the student wants to reenter college, will they seek a recovery community both off campus and on campus? Few colleges offer collegiate recovery programs on campus through supported sober living options, meetings, planned sober activities, and safe spaces. Information about recovery communities can be found directly on college websites or on the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE) website. There are significant differences in what a college provides for students. On the ARHE website there are 143 institutions that identify as having a Collegiate Recovery Program (CRP). Of those, maybe 10 actually have well-established university funding that includes housing, scholarships, activities, recovery meetings, and counseling, for a large student group. Just because a college or university says that they have a CRP, don’t take it at face value. With the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools saw their funding cut and/or their student community decrease significantly. Make sure the family is doing their due diligence to ensure those on-campus resources truly exist!

Reputable colleges with established CRPs include Augsburg University, Kennesaw State University, Penn State University, Rutgers University, Texas Tech University, and the University of Colorado Boulder, among others.

Step 4: Set up support on the academic front. 

Whether the student is enrolling for the first time or reentering college, they may need to sharpen their student skills; research options for writing center sessions, math tutoring, and/or time management/executive functioning skills. Often, those in recovery have a hard time juggling multiple things at once without letting one of the balls drop. That ball dropping leads to self-shame, which can lead to a relapse. Be proactive and make sure the student gets more coaching and tutoring than they think they need on the front end. Discipline and structure will help every student remain on task, and subsequently complete semesters they are proud of academically. If the student recently received psychological testing while in treatment or in school, make sure to seek services from the office of disability or accessibility to make sure they’re receiving any necessary accommodations. 

Step 5: Guide the student in making a thoughtful decision. 

There is a lot of reflection that must go into the student’s decisions—first, whether to attend/return to college or not, and then where to go and using what resources to support them on their journey. We can’t emphasize enough that you have to consider the student’s overall well-being in making the final decision. Ask: Are they really ready to be back on campus? Are they truly motivated in their recovery? Are the parents prematurely driving this timeline and process? Fight for the student. Encourage the student to find their voice in this! Sometimes students are blinded by the need to be “in college,” when, in reality, being back in college is the worst place for them at that moment. Success is not just getting into college—it is also thriving once there. Think through this with the student, and then decide what makes the most sense. 

Note: We didn’t preface this article to state we would be using the terms recovery and sobriety synonymously. To anyone who understands substance abuse recovery, you know these words are not synonyms. For more in-depth information about the difference, please reach out to us.

By Joanna Lilley, Lilley Consulting, MA, NCC, IECA (MI) and Adrienne N. Frumberg, Lighthouse Guidance LLC, MA, IECA (CT)