Community Colleges: The Next Frontier of Recovery Support
By KRISTEN HARPER, ERIN JONES AND BRET FRAZIER
In 2016, Transforming Youth Recovery could identify only six community colleges offering recovery support programs and services. Based on this finding, Transforming Youth Recovery (TYR) identified a need for pilot programs to better understand programmatic models that may be effective for supporting students in recovery at community colleges.
TYR’s Bridging the Gap grant program supports these pilot programs and is intended to act as a catalyst for building capacity for recovery support on community college campuses across the U.S. The goal of the program is two-fold — first, to help more two-year institutions initiate recovery support and second, to study what programs and services are viewed as helpful and useful so that best practices can be shared.
The following forum is based on conversations led by Kristen Harper, TYR’s technical assistance coordinator, that took place during the summer of 2018.
Kristen Harper is currently partnering with Transforming Youth Recovery to bring technical assistance to collegiate recovery programs that have received one of TYR’s highly sought-after Seeds of Hope or Bridging the Gap grants. From 2013 to 2017, Harper served as the first full-time executive director for the Association of Recovery Schools, the nation’s first organization devoted entirely to the creation, growth and sustainability of recovery schools. In 2016, she was invited to join the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services National Advisory Council as an expert adviser to the director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.
Erin Jones is a research partner for TYR and a principal at sr4 Partners. Jones has acted as the principal investigator on TYR’s research efforts since 2013, authoring the following: Recovery Support in and Around Community Colleges in the U.S.; Closing the Gap: An Examination of Access to Best-in-class Evidence-based Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention Programs for K–12 students in the U.S.; The State of Recovery High Schools, 2016 Biennial Report; and The Assets for Building Collegiate Recovery Capacity. Jones has degrees from Northeastern Illinois University and Tulane University.
Bret Frazier is the program coordinator of the Center for Addiction Recovery at Georgia Southern University. A former collegiate recovery student who found community colleges to be an important bridge to furthering his educational goals while maintaining his recovery, Frazier has a bachelor’s degree in business.
PART I: TRYING TO FIGURE ‘IT’ OUT
Kristen Harper: Erin, thank you for speaking with me today about TYR’s Community College Pilot Program and why it is a critical piece of collegiate recovery support. Can you briefly explain the goals of this project?
Erin Jones: Back in 2016, TYR published Recovery Support in and Around Community Colleges Campuses in the U.S. We were getting feedback from the collegiate recovery directors at four-year schools that local community colleges were interested in initiating collegiate recovery efforts. Additionally, we had been identifying service gaps for a few years through our technical assistance work with TYR grantees as well as the work with recovery high schools and the Association of Recovery Schools. We did a landscape study with established collegiate recovery programs and recovery high schools in 2016.
TYR spent six months trying to find community colleges offering recovery support services. At that time, we found just six schools. As researchers, that is not really a sample size we can do anything with.
So, we conducted semi-structured interviews.
What we heard was interesting, especially compared to the four-year schools. None of the community college professionals we spoke with told us they had figured “it” out. The difference with recovery high schools and four-year institutions is that there are models to refer to: Texas Tech, Augsburg, Rutgers. Each has been around for a while, successfully serving lots of students. In terms of high schools, the same could be said for places like Archway Academy.
The six community colleges reported they were trying to figure it out. It just seemed like an emergent field. Clearly, the need for support was there. So, TYR thought we should do something to help advance the field. If we could study the development of the field and what happens if you take the funding question away, we thought we could establish some initial best practices for community colleges to use to start supporting students in recovery.
Stacie [Mathewson, TYR’s founder and CEO] wanted to infuse funds into the population, offer ongoing technical assistance, study the result and rapidly share the information with the entire community. At the end of this pilot, we don’t anticipate having a full framework — it will be too soon and too small of a population — but we will be able to tell the stories of these schools so that more people can learn from their efforts and work to build capacity for recovery on their own community college campuses.
Kristen Harper: Why do you think Stacie believes that community colleges are the next frontier for collegiate recovery? What is unique about two-year colleges?
Erin Jones: Stacie had a hunch that community colleges are where most people in recovery who want to pursue higher education start after finishing treatment. Many ask themselves, “What is the next step: Get a job or go to school?” If the answer is going to school, the reality is most start at a community college, not a four-year university. We also see that folks in recovery are drawn to the counseling or social work fields. They may start with a certification program at a community college.
What is unique about the populations at two-year schools is that many of them have not had positive experiences with academics and the thought of a giant campus could be intimidating. Community colleges offer a new and often a more manageable experience for this population.
Also, many students in recovery are nontraditional students. They aren’t 18- to 26-years-old. There also seems to be more diversity at community colleges in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, background and age. I think community colleges can lead the way and teach the four-years schools how to meet a diverse population’s needs.
In general, community colleges want to be able to support people who are pre-contemplative or contemplative. A one-year abstinence requirement might be good for students enrolled or committed to the program. But there are also mechanisms that need to be in place to support people earlier in the recovery journey. Community colleges report needing a policy for active use. What is the incentive to become part of the program or take on leadership roles but also have a drop-in center? Most community college programs are only two years long, so having a one-year abstinence requirement creates a barrier to support.
PART II: EXAMINING SUPPORT ON CAMPUS
Kristen Harper: Erin, you have conducted six site visits at the community colleges that are a part of the TYR pilot study. What are some of your favorite observations from these trips?
Erin Jones: Each of the campuses is so different. One example that comes to mind is Minneapolis Community and Technical College in downtown Minneapolis. The program was created after a faculty member made collegiate recovery his sabbatical project. Dr. Jonathan Lofgren spent his time speaking with and visiting collegiate recovery professionals at four-year institutions before creating a plan for his college.
Because of his team’s efforts, the campus decided to fund a licensed alcohol drug counselor with a $3 student health fee, which students voted to approve. They have a multifaceted approach, including a drop-in center that is staffed by student workers who are in that space 100 percent of the time. They also offer recovery support resources and use students in academic programs to facilitate the recovery meetings.
Greenfield Community College (GCC) in Greenfield, Massachusetts, is another innovative program. Their Community Resource Studio was exploring how to use assets in the local community to staff a recovery space. Organizations from Western Massachusetts share space in the studio to provide additional support to GCC students. When the space is not in use by one of these organizations, students can use it for quiet study and reflection. Last spring and fall, the space was staffed by a variety of local recovery organizations, including GCC’s Wellness Center staff and the local Refuge Recovery members.
On the other hand, the collegiate recovery community at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina, functions as a student club. It is staffed by a member of the faculty who is volunteering to lead the effort. They have a dedicated space with drop-in times as well. During our site visit, they did not express a desire to expand into a full-fledged program. However, they have faculty and staff engaged, new students joining their efforts, and a safe place to meet.
This is different than the desire expressed by those leading the effort at Santa Rosa Junior College (S4R) club to expand to a full-fledged program that assists the college in its recruitment and student support efforts. To date, S4R has not had a ton of support from the related academic programs. This is the next frontier for the folks on campus to expand their efforts beyond the club to become an institutionalized program.
S4R has an interesting model for the club meetings; they rotate the type of meeting they offer every week. They have had to play around with the time of the meeting quite a bit to determine when to get the most engagement, and they think they finally got it this past spring semester. They meet in a room just before one of the academic classes, so students arrive early, go to the meeting and then stay for class.
Many four-year programs have evolved to having membership requirements and program applications for the collegiate recovery efforts. These items have been put in place to establish community norms, protect these communities and create accountability.
However, these policies and processes also create barriers to support. Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is experimenting with a model that requires an application for participation in the community. It will be interesting to see what they learn from having this requirement in place.
PART III: MEASURING AWARENESS AND OUTCOMES
Kristen Harper: I know that you are in the middle of analyzing the data, but can you give us a few highlights that may impact the field?
Erin Jones: We are still in the process of data collection from our 10 community college grantees. The grantees include:
- Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina
- Community College of Philadelphia in Philadelphia
- Eastfield College in Mesquite, Texas
- Greenfield Community College in Greenfield, Massachusetts
- Minneapolis Community & Technical College in Minneapolis
- Nash Community College in Rocky Mount, North Carolina
- Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
- Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa, California
- Southwestern Community College in Sylva, North Carolina
- Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada
As of April 2018, we have more than 2,000 responses to our Student Engagement and Institutional Attitude survey that we have asked all grantees to deploy. We are looking forward to releasing our findings in Q4 of 2018. So, no highlights yet.
If you are a community college looking to start recovery supports, we now know there are close to 20 schools providing supports. We will be able to share stories and examples that will help you make informed decisions, but we are still encouraging people to experiment on their campuses. The highlight of this project may be something as simple as hearing six in-depth stories from campuses willing to give recovery support services a shot.
PART IV: HELPING ONE STUDENT AT A TIME
Kristen Harper: Bret, you started off going to a community college while still living in a recovery residence. What was attractive to you about starting off at a community college rather than a four-year university?
Bret Frazier: Well, to be honest, I am not sure I could have gotten into a four-year university if I had not started at a community college. I had tried school before I found recovery, but I wasn’t very successful. In high school, I was either absent physically or absent mentally because of my substance use disorder, so I did not have the SAT score or grades to get into a university.
When I got into recovery, I had already accepted the idea that my lifelong goal of graduating from a university may have been lost to my battle with addiction. I was also well into my 20s when I started school again.
Another reason I was interested in starting with a two-year school was I had some additional life issues happening at the same time. I was diagnosed with cancer right after I entered recovery, so you could say I was not only learning how to be in recovery for my substance use disorder, but I was also learning how to let my body heal at the same time. Starting off at a community college really made life more manageable for me in several ways.
Kristen Harper: How was the transition from community college to a four-year university?
Bret Frazier: The transition was really easy for me because our collegiate recovery program includes the two-year community college students, so I was plugged into the community from the start. Having the collegiate recovery community while I navigated the very challenging higher education system as a nontraditional student, with the additional health care challenges, was crucial for me to be successful.
I majored in business and graduated with a 3.6 GPA. My acceptance that I would never be able to go back to school was completely smashed. I proved myself and others wrong, but only because of my recovery and the support Georgia Southern University provided.
Now I get to work for the program that helped me accomplish my dream of being a college graduate. It blows my mind that I get to help students just like me!
Transforming Youth Recovery wants to continue to paint the picture of the national landscape for community colleges. We welcome people to challenge us and tell us if what we are finding in our research is accurate. Join us in rapidly sharing these experiences so more people can learn from others’ experiences. Tell us if you are doing this and we don’t know about you. We want to include you in this story. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.