Who Joins Collegiate Recovery Programs – and Why?

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

The idea of doing college sober may be counterintuitive, even downright pointless to many incoming freshmen but for young people in recovery, it’s the only viable option. As described in a previous piece, So You Want to do College Sober?, Collegiate Recovery Programs (CRPs) are a fast growing innovative model of peer driven recovery support on college campus. The model is appealing as it may help curtail the addictive cycle that can last up to two decades for many before recovery is sought; it can also help people in recovery achieve the challenging goals of getting an education and a job.

While growing exponentially in the past decade, the CRP model has yet to become widely known outside of the geographic communities where it is established – see the Association of Recovery in Higher Education’s website (ARHE) for an up-to date list of CRPs nationwide. As a result, professionals who may be in a position to inform or refer students to a CRP may not do so because they lack information about what types of student CRPs attract and how students experience CRP participation.

While growing exponentially in the past decade, the CRP model has yet to become widely known outside of the geographic communities where it is established…-Alexandre Laudet

We conducted a federally funded nationwide survey of CRP students in 2013 to find out about:

  1. Who they are (e.g., sociodemographic background, substance use and behavioral addiction history, utilization of treatment and other recovery resources); and
  2. Their CRP experiences – Why they joined, and is it helpful?

We worked with the 29 CRPs operating in late 2012 to recruit students (the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE)’s website now lists 59 programs four years later, illustrating the rapid growth of the model). Where possible, we used psychometrically validated standardized measures. Data were collected from February 2013 through the spring, summer and fall semesters of that year to get as large a sample as possible, since students may join a CRP at any time during the academic year. A total of 486 unduplicated surveys were completed, an 81% participation rate based on an estimated pool of 600 CRP in 2013. The hour long online survey was administered via Survey Monkey® and started with an informed consent page. Students received a $40 Amazon e-gift card for completing the survey.

Who Joins a CRP?

As reported in a recent article, CRP students (43% female, 91% Caucasian) are on average, 26 years old- somewhat older than traditional college age but not unexpected given their addiction history (see later section). They represent all academic ranks and report a mean GPA of 3.2. They generally rate their current mental health as ‘good’ or ‘very good’; however, three quarter have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, chiefly depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, and two thirds are currently receiving mental health treatment.

Turning to their substance use history, students used drugs and/or alcohol for an average of seven years, starting with marijuana and alcohol at age 15.-Alexandre LaudetTurning to their substance use history, students used drugs and/or alcohol for an average of seven years, starting with marijuana and alcohol at age 15. However, their use can best be characterized as ‘polysubstance,’ as it also included stimulants, sedatives, heroin, cocaine or crack, hallucinogens and pain relievers. The primary substance problem had been drugs (vs. alcohol) for over half the students. Dependence severity had been high, as measured by a standardized scale, leading most (82%) to seek treatment, on average at age 21. They also sought additional forms of recovery support including individual counseling and prescribed medication, as well as participation in self-help groups, chiefly 12-step fellowships (93%).

In addition to substance use, we asked about behavioral (process) addictions that often co-occur with substance use disorders, but are not typically examined in addiction studies. Eating disorders and sex/love addiction were cited by over 10% of students as a primary problem at some point in their life. Moreover, asked to select all the problems from which they were in recovery (i.e., drugs, alcohol and behavioral addictions), a higher than expected percentage reported considering themselves in recovery from a behavioral addiction (independently of their substance use recovery status): the top three issues were disordered eating (15.6%), self harm (10.5%), and sex and/or love addiction (9.5%). Although alcohol- and drug-free for an average of three years, some 12% reported engaging recently in one or more behavioral addiction (past 90 days). Furthermore, 40% of the students currently smoke.

Why Do Students Join a CRP and is it Helpful?

Students had been in their CRP for seven semesters, first hearing about it by word of mouth, in treatment or 12-step (top three information sources). As reported in an earlier piece, 29% had inquired about the availability of recovery support on campus before applying to their institution. Asked specifically what they sought in joining the program, 80% provided multiple reasons for joining. Most often cited were the need for:

  • A same-aged peer recovery support network (56%;  e.g., ““I recently moved to the area, I needed that immediate network of sober people”), and for
  • A safe place on campus to “do college sober’ (31%; e.g., “For a chance to be in school and still have recovery be my foundation”).

Nearly two thirds (59%) rated being in the CRP as ‘extremely” or ‘quite a bit’ helpful to their recovery (only 6% selected ‘not at all’ helpful). Of the different services and supports offered by CRPs, students rated as most helpful the “opportunity to hang out” with other CRP members (i.e., peers in recovery) both at the CRP site and off site, e.g., for social events and leisure activities. Also perceived as very useful was the opportunity to meet with a CRP academic advisor to discuss any academic issues, and participation in CRP seminars about addiction and recovery. [For additional findings about CRP experiences, please see article).

What Does This All Mean?

Substance use dependent individuals who find recovery at a young age are a fortunate few – CRP students first sought treatment at 21, whereas most treatment clients first do so in their late 30’s. Therefore, they have a chance to pursue an education and go on to live healthy productive lives without the decades of derailment addiction causes to too many. But college presents real threats to sobriety.

Findings presented here suggest that CRPs meet that goal: Students experienced a multi-year period of severe addiction to both drugs and alcohol, followed by treatment.-Alexandre LaudetCollege Recovery Programs have emerged “to provide an educational opportunity alongside recovery support to ensure that students do not have to sacrifice one for the other.” Findings presented here suggest that CRPs meet that goal: Students experienced a multi-year period of severe addiction to both drugs and alcohol, followed by treatment. As reported in the original article, consequences of severe addiction were also evidenced by one-third reporting a period of homelessness, over half having been arrested and charged with a crime, and over a third having been incarcerated. However, most students had no current involvement with the criminal justice system. They are in stable recovery (i.e., 3 years or longer) and join CRPs for recovery support, especially from same aged peers in recovery; of the many services and supports offered at these programs, the opportunity to spend time with peers both on- and off-campus is rated as the most helpful aspect of the programs.

Note that this study is cross-sectional – i.e., we are unable to speak to the long-term outcomes of CRP participation. However, we reported encouraging academic and recovery outcomes here based on CRP’s records. We currently know little of people in recovery, especially young people. Findings on the prevalence of mental health and behavioral addiction issues in this student group is therefore noteworthy and should alert both clinicians and academic health professionals of the need to address these problems and addiction in an integrated way to maximize positive recovery outcomes.

Image Courtesy of iStock

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