By Melissa Shanahan, MA, IECA (CO)

College campuses are often synonymous with drinking and partying. Scenes of students playing beer pong on porches with red cups littered across front lawns, drinking flavored vodka in dorm rooms, and just managing to make it to a 10:00 a.m. class are all considered integral parts of the college experience. But the idea that students can attend college and not drink or use drugs is fast becoming a viable option on campuses. Many colleges and universities provide support services, housing options, and a variety of other recovery activities for students who want to remain sober while pursuing their college degree.

Recovery is more visible and accepted on college campuses across the United States than ever before, with more than 150 College Recovery Programs (CRPs) and College Recovery Centers (CRCs) in the US. This movement is supported and overseen by the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE)—an organization with more than 150 participating colleges and universities that developed a set of evidence-based standards for CRPs and provides guidance, collaboration, and expertise to campuses that have CRCs and CRPs or are interested in starting new ones ( ARHE publishes Recovery Campus monthly, which includes articles, campus profiles, and personal stories of student recovery, and hosts the National Collegiate Recovery Conference each year, which provides workshops, seminars, and networking opportunities for students and leaders in CRPs.

Growth of College Recovery Programs

The first CRCs started as school-based recovery projects at Brown University in 1979 and Rutgers University in 1983 to provide support and sober-friendly spaces on campus. In 1986, Carl Anderson from Texas Tech started the Center for the Study of Addictions and Don Warren at Augsburg College started the StepUP program. Those programs aimed to improve successful outcomes for students who struggled with addiction by not only promoting recovery but also providing academic support and sober housing. The results were positive. Staying sober at those colleges was no longer an alienating experience, and students were able to achieve a college degree in a supportive and sober environment. Today, Texas Tech is a leader in collegiate recovery, and its curriculum is often used as a model for other campuses that are interested in starting their own recovery program.

By 1997, there were 29 CRCs and CRPs, which allowed for new research and outcome studies to begin. The research identified academic support, peer-to-peer recovery groups, and 12-step programs as factors that contributed to CRCs effectiveness. (Smock et al. 2011) The federal government also started to take notice of the growth of CRPs on college campuses, and in 2005, SAMHSA funded three pilot programs at Tulsa Community College, the University of Colorado–Boulder, and Vanderbilt University.

With the help of $10,000 in seed grants from Transforming Youth Recovery, there has been an explosion of CRPs and CRCs on college campuses in the past five years. At last count, there were over 150 CRCs and CRPs nationwide. A complete list of colleges and universities can be found at Students who are recovering from addiction now see doors opening to them through the help and support of CRPs and the new recovery movement on college campuses.

How College Recovery Programs Work

CRPs and CRCs are not entirely one in the same although they do sit on the same continuum of recovery support for college students. Each provides a safe, sober space where students can gather for support, information, and like-minded community. Both CRCs and CRPs promote recovery and wellness through peer and institutional bonding.

CRCs, which initially started the collegiate recovery movement, are grassroots in nature, student initiated, student led, and lightly supported by the university or college. CRCs can evolve toward more-defined programs, called CRPs, which are more structured, strategic, and well-defined within the campus setting. They have financial support from the university, which also offers collaboration, leadership support, and promotion of recovery efforts on campus. For example, most CRPs have a dedicated meeting space or center, offer specific recovery support services, are overseen by a paid program staff member, and in some cases offer residential housing for those who qualify. At the University of Colorado-Boulder, the CUCRC offers assessments, recovery talks, recovery meetings, academic support, peer mentoring, leadership opportunities, and a sober resident hall.

It is important to note that CRCs and CRPs are not treatment programs, but rather an adjunct to treatment. They are a place for students to gain support and direction, and they provide valuable resources for students to further their recovery. Each CRP and CRC differs in the services it provides students and also varies in tone in accordance with the culture of its specific school.

As the college recovery movement gains more momentum, so does the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE), The last conference in April, 2016, addressed hot topics, such as medication-assisted treatment in CRPs, housing options on campus versus private providers, and how to support students with co-occurring disorders. In the future, ARHE would like to support and provide more research and outcome studies regarding the effectiveness of recovery on college campuses, create opportunities to support more diversity of students, and explore how to increase recovery support on community college campuses.

From Ivy League institutions to community colleges, CRCs and CRPs are popping up at campuses near you. They are being supported through grants, colleges, and universities and are highly sought after by students who see the value of living a sober lifestyle. There is a specific curriculum of recovery to be applied for higher education institutions, an annual conference to attend, a strong association to confer with, and most importantly a large membership of campuses that are making this movement a mainstay of services for students in recovery. CRCs and CRPs are here to stay and are creating new opportunities for success, accountability, and completion of college degrees.


Smock, Sarah A, Amanda K. Baker, Kitty S. Harris, and Cynthia D’Sauza. 2011. “The Role of Social Support in Collegiate Recovery Communities: A Review of the Literature.” Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly 29 (1): 35–44.

Melissa Shanahan, Educational Pathways, can be reached at [email protected].