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Recovery 101: A Closer Look at 12-Step Meetings on College Campuses

While it’s often during one’s college years that a person really gains a sense of identity, we’ve come to associate the college experience with partying, drinking and doing drugs. In many cases, experimentation with substance abuse is a passing interest, but there are other times when it becomes a coping mechanism and leads to addiction. Today, young people are under a lot of pressure and experience a lot of stress, which happens to be one of the top causes of addiction.1 So it shouldn’t be surprising that a growing number of colleges and universities offer 12-Step programs and other recovery groups.

Addiction support programs may seem somewhat out-of-place on college campuses, but it makes more sense when you remember that young people — adolescents, teens and young adults specifically — are considered one of the most at-risk demographics for addiction.2 With this in mind, let’s take a brief look at the advent of college campus-based addiction support groups before considering two important questions: Is it a good idea to offer addiction-related resources on college campuses? And what do these programs say about our strategy for combating addiction among young people as we move forward?

A Different Kind of Program

There have virtually always been clubs and social programs offered on college campuses, but 12-Step and similar addiction-oriented programs are a relatively recent development. The first substance abuse support groups held on college campuses and meant specifically for college students were created in the late-1970s. These were basically just small communities offering mostly moral support to Brown University and Rutgers University students. However, these small communities developed into more substantial collegiate recovery programs in the early 1980s. Typically, these programs offered sober housing placement, self-help and 12-Step meetings, and some counseling.3

After seeing some success with these programs, Rutgers University took them a step further. In 1988, a formal addiction rehabilitation program was offered to Rutgers students.4 What makes Rutgers’ program especially notable is the fact that it was an on-campus residential program for students with substance abuse problems. In other words, there were special residential quarters meant specifically for students in the substance abuse program and kept separate from other residences.

News of the Rutgers program traveled around the United States, calling attention to a problem that was well-known yet infrequently addressed. That college students partied frequently wasn’t exactly news. However, as students began to organize 12-Step programs and sought on-campus resources to help them with substance abuse problems, we realized the scope of alcohol and drug use on college campuses. It didn’t take long for 12-Step programs and other recovery resources to begin appearing on other campuses. For students trying to abstain from the alcohol and drugs other students were using, these programs ensured safe places on campus where they could go for support and to support one another.

Are There Drawbacks to Offering Recovery Support on Campus?

With young people already being one of the most at-risk demographics, the fact that substance abuse is seemingly part of the college experience is concerning. On the other hand, there are some who question whether offering support groups and special programs on college campuses is the right course of action. Of course, the benefits of college-based support programs — i.e., Alcoholics Anonymous and its numerous derivatives — are numerous. For one thing, these programs make recovery resources extremely accessible. As well, the fact that collegiate support groups consist mostly of peers is reassuring to other students who are struggling with similar issues. It’s also a really great way to connect young adults to other recovery resources. Depending on the severity of the substance abuse problem, the individual could be referred to a more intensive program.





Recovery Unscripted interviews on recovery schools for students to have support groups
Recovery Unscripted is joined by Dr. Andrew Finch, one of the country’s foremost authorities on integrating education and recovery support in an academic setting. Currently a professor of counseling at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, he’s also leading the first large-scale research studies on the effectiveness of recovery schools and is co-founder of the Association of Recovery Schools. He sat down with Recovery Unscripted to discuss why these institutions are uniquely positioned to help alter students’ trajectories for the future and how his experience serving with them has broadened his view of what recovery can mean.


As for drawbacks, there aren’t many. From the perspective of an academic institution, there could be some worry that establishing programs and services for students with substance abuse problems would jeopardize the institution’s reputation. Similarly, an institution could see the sanctioning of support groups and other programs as being tantamount to admitting to that on-campus substance abuse has gotten out of control. However, there’s far more to be gained — particularly for the students — by offering such resources than there is to lose.

Collegiate Recovery Programs

Today, 12-Step programs and other recovery support services are offered on college campuses across the U.S. Some of these programs are independent and student-run, but many have been organized by institutions that are part of the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE). This association represents collegiate recovery programs (CRPs) and communities (CRCs) offered by institutions that are part of the Collegiate Recovery Movement.5 Currently, there are more than 70 programs that are either part of ARHE or in the process of joining. In short, the purpose of this organization is to reinforce collegiate recovery programs by connecting students with substance abuse education, community support and the resources needed to get and stay sober.

The risks associated with alcohol and drug use are immense. Unfortunately, young people often learn the hard way just how slippery the slope can be. But they don’t have to find their way back to sobriety on their own. Twelve-Step meetings on college campuses are well-positioned to intervene in many young people’s lives and help them with substance abuse problems before those passing curiosities become lasting addiction.



Written by Dane O’Leary