Schools Help Keep Students on the Road to Recovery

For students battling a substance use disorder at Oregon State University, the road to recovery may get a little easier this fall.

That’s the hope of university staff working to open a recovery dormitory when students return for the fall semester. According to OSU Alcohol, Drug and Recovery Specialist John Ruyak, it’s been a long-term goal of the university to offer specialized housing for students recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.

“We’ve had what’s called a collegiate recovery community organized on campus for three years,” which provides positive peer support programming and services to students in recovery, said Ruyak. “But since we started, we’ve always had a dream to open a recovery-specific residence hall or housing option for students.”

College can be an exciting, but stressful, time for students who may be away from home for the first time, learning to manage rigorous academic demands while navigating new social circles. And for many students, the college experience also includes alcohol use, said Ruyak. 

But for students recovering from addiction, being surrounded by classmates and activities that may involve alcohol or other substances can pose a significant barrier both to their education and their sobriety.

“Students in recovery come in (to college) needing a system that is supportive of their needs and for some of them it can be a life or death need to stay sober—and alcohol use is all around them,” said Ruyak. “Some students may have to choose their recovery over staying in school because they can’t seem to find both.”

According to the Association for Recovery in Higher Education—or ARHE—an association representing collegiate recovery programs and communities across the country, approximately 21 percent of young adults ages 18 to 21 meet the criteria for a substance abuse disorder. The State University of New Jersey, also known as Rutgers, became one of the first college campuses in the U.S. to begin a collegiate recovery program back in 1983, and they’ve been growing ever since. 

Now numbering nearly 150 nationwide, collegiate recovery programs are demonstrating some success in helping students maintain their recovery. According to the ARHE, 95 percent of students involved in collegiate recovery programs maintain their recovery while in school.   

And the efforts to help students in recovery stay sober aren’t limited to colleges and universities. According to Kristen Harper, executive director of the Association of Recovery Schools, there are 36 operating recovery high schools in 14 states across the country helping to provide students in recovery with a supportive environment while they complete high school. 

Recovery high schools tend to be small, and most are public charter or alternative schools, according to Harper. Five states—Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Rhode Island—have passed legislation to establish or provide funding for recovery high schools. Legislation to establish a recovery high school pilot program is being considered this legislative session in Pennsylvania. 

Students at recovery high schools attend classes just as they would at any high school, but they also have the benefit of structured check-ins and recovery activities, a staff with specialized training in the recovery process and classmates who provide positive peer support. 

Together, said Harper, those elements build the supportive community that adolescents in recovery need. “Really, the secret in the sauce is the recovery culture that’s created in the schools,” she said.

Harper cited research that found when an adolescent goes into treatment—either inpatient or outpatient—and then returns to their regular high school, about 76 percent of those students will relapse within the first year of their return to school. With a return to drug use, some students drop out of schools and some end up in the juvenile justice system. 

And while national data on the impact of recovery high schools aren’t yet available, initial signs at the local recovery school level seem positive. Harper pointed to a recovery high school in Houston that had a 93 percent graduation rate, with 86 percent of graduating students going on to some form of higher education.

According to Harper, recovery high schools can be a more cost-effective use of public resources as well. “If you look at an adolescent going into the juvenile justice system costing an average of $80,000 per year per kid,” she said, “versus $20,000 for a recovery high school kid … that’s an obvious savings if the kid is projected to go into the juvenile justice system.”

Seven more recovery high schools are slated to open in the next two years in four new states—Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Michigan—and Washington, D.C., which Harper hopes will increase access for students in recovery who need such a supportive learning environment. 

“The most heartbreaking thing is when I get calls from parents and they find out that these recovery schools exist, but they don’t have them anywhere near where they live,” said Harper. “It’s just not acceptable that a family has to uproot to be able to find appropriate developmental resources for their kid, or their kid ends up getting locked up, or something much worse happens and they potentially overdose.” A map of states with recovery high schools is available at   

Ruyak said universities like OSU that offer collegiate recovery programming are reaching out to recovery high schools to educate students and their parents about the recovery resources available on college campuses, including sober residential options. 

When it opens its new recovery dorm this fall, OSU will join the ranks of other colleges and universities across the country, such as Rutgers University, Texas Tech and the University of Vermont, that also provide recovery-specific housing options for students. 

In New Jersey, several state schools will be required by law to open sober dorms for students in recovery in the next few years.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill into law in August 2015 that requires state colleges and universities where 25 percent of the student body resides on campus to provide sober housing options within four years. In addition to Rutgers, The College of New Jersey already offers recovery dorms. The legislation also applies to six other state-run colleges and universities.

Federal grants may help states create new school recovery programs in the future under new federal legislation that aims to address the country’s growing opioid addiction epidemic. 

In July, President Barack Obama signed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act into law, which establishes grants for states to develop, implement or expand recovery support services and programs at high schools and institutions of higher education. But with no funding attached to the legislation, the impact of these grants remains unclear. 

“My administration has been doing everything we can to increase access to treatment,” Obama said in a statement after the bill signing, “and I’m going to continue fighting to secure the funding families desperately need.”

Back in Oregon, Ruyak expects the school’s new recovery dorm to become the center of the campus’ collegiate recovery community. In addition to providing residency for up to a dozen students in the fall—with the possibility of expanding up to 40 students in subsequent years—the dormitory will also house a clubhouse space for members of the university’s collegiate recovery community, both dorm residents and those who live elsewhere, to socialize and hang out, providing the positive peer support space that students in recovery need. The space will also serve to host workshops on academic success, time management, and maintaining mental and physical health, designed specifically for students in recovery.

The goal, according to Ruyak, is to offer students in recovery the quintessential college experience, but in a way that is supportive of students in recovery, leading to higher rates of retention and degree completion. 

“You get to have that normal college experience and it’s substance free and the university is providing it for them—so it feels like the university is there for them,” said Ruyak. “And that goes a long way toward their success.”