Late last month, colleges and universities received a letter from some notable Federal agencies asking that they consider developing a collegiate recovery program (CRP). The communication was a combined effort between the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Department of Education.

As these types of letters often go, there were limited research citations provided to support the recommendations. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t hit the mark in several places. Putting aside political differences and the fact that the appeal was framed mainly within the context of the current opioid crisis, the outcome that the letter endorses is universal: promote student success, promote health and well being, and, in many cases, save lives.

But as all good higher education professionals know, any conversations about additional resources required for new programs must also include evidence for why those programs are needed. Below are some of the key points raised in the letter that provide a framing for those conversations, along with some of the research and additional insights to back them up.

“Substance use takes a toll on educational outcomes such as grade point average, attendance, and graduation.”

There is decades of research available on this topic. A good overview of the “need to know” data points can be found in two previously written blogs: Why Faculty Should Care About Risky Alcohol Use and Why the Impact of Alcohol Use on Academics May Also Hinder Job Prospects for Graduates.

“Through simple accommodations such as staff support, a gathering place such as a lounge, and peer support and academic guidance, [collegiate recovery] programs are providing the support those in recovery need to excel in college while maintaining their sobriety.”

Alcoholism and drug addiction are both considered disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and as such, those in recovery qualify for accommodation , especially since the campus environment has been deemed “abstinence hostile. How is your campus accommodating students in recovery? Most colleges offer support for a variety of challenges that students face, but few provide resources to help students in recovery navigate the challenges encountered by a lack of peer and, sometimes, institutional support for abstinence in an environment that creates serious problems for the average (non-dependent) student¹. This is one of the main reasons that college-age students leaving treatment programs have traditionally been told by their counselors to steer clear of college and, instead, get a job. Those that do decide to pursue a degree do so from a distance, often from home, and typically disengaged from the social connections that college offers beyond the party scene, for fear of becoming part of that scene. Ensuring equal access to education for students in recovery requires more than offering 12-step meetings and substance-free residence halls.

 “However, the assistance provided to students in recovery is only one part of the benefit of CRPs.  They are also helping to reshape campus-wide attitudes towards alcohol and drug use.”

Promoting inclusiveness of an underserved and marginalized population benefits all students. New campus traditions designed to support students in recovery provide attractive alternatives to stereotypical “rite of passage” behaviors. These broader efforts to challenge normative behavior on campus are a critical component of a public health framework. Importantly, students in recovery are often the leaders in creating sober parties and activities attended by all students, writing new narratives about college life1 , and helping to transform a campus culture conducive to alcohol and drug abuse into one that prioritizes health and safety.

“Collegiate recovery is playing an invaluable role, all across the country, to help students reclaim their futures. This investment in students is paying off not just for the individuals, but for their institutions, and for their families and loved ones who know their children are living and studying at an institution that puts a priority on their well-being.”

With relapse rates well below those of the general recovery population, and graduation rates surpassing that of their host institution’s average, as well as national completion rates, students in recovery appear to be making the most of these opportunities. As CRPs grow in strength and reputation, they attract new students who, along with their families, are seeking institutions with a reputation for enabling recovering students to thrive not only academically, but socially. Ultimately, this increases the enrollment of potentially healthier students and alumni, many of whom are stepping forward to provide financial support to the institution that supported them in their recovery1.

Clearly, the intent of this collaborative letter was to draw attention to the issue, not provide a summary of the evidence base. But the broader message is, as the letter states at the end, “We all have a part to play.” Indeed, buy-in from multiple campus stakeholders is required in order to provide an underserved population with greater access to higher education by offering safe and supportive communities that stand in sharp contrast to environments once considered risky for recovering students. For those in the initial planning stages of developing these efforts, the letter and supporting information can help lay the groundwork for creating programs and services that will enable students in recovery to pursue their academic goals in a setting that supports, rather than challenges, their sobriety.

For more information and assistance with developing a collegiate recovery program on your campus, check out The Association of Recovery in Higher Education. ARHE has created a set of recommendations and critical questions to inform the creation of a collegiate recovery program or community.


  1. Hall, T., & DeRicco, B. (2016). Substance Dependence and Recovery: Trading Stigma for Success in Anderson, D (Ed.) Further Wellness Issues for Higher Education: How to Promote Student Health During and After College (pp.175-200). New York, N.Y.: Routledge.
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