Shelter from the Storm


What you need to know about recovery housing on campus

Managing recovery housing on campus is no small task, whether you’re an administrator, program director, or a student seeking to support your recovery. It’s a huge topic to navigate: Various models of housing, challenges faced by all parties and best practices all must be addressed. There is a lot to consider when looking at the landscape of recovery housing. We spoke to various stakeholders involved in recovery housing to get their insight.


Recovery housing is a relatively new development. It was first offered by Rutgers University–New Brunswick in 1988 when program directors saw students struggle to maintain their recovery. The college offered resources including activities, peer support, group therapy, counseling, weekly dinners and a sober community to help support students’ recovery.

Since then, the number of programs has grown from four in 2002 to around 50, including Case Western Reserve, University of Colorado, University of Michigan, Texas Tech, Oregon State and William Paterson University, with more to be launched in the coming years. In 2015, Gov. Chris Christie signed a law requiring state-run colleges in New Jersey to offer sober housing if 25 percent of their students live on campus by fall 2019.

“Our students really flourish in this environment,” says Lisa Laitman, director of Rutgers Alcohol and other Drug Assistance Program. “It really is a social experiment where you can put people who are in recovery on a college campus. As long as you can provide them with friends and a place that’s safe and a certain amount of activity, they do really well.”


Models of recovery housing vary. William Paterson University offers substance-free housing. The University of Michigan offers a recovery room to share with a like-minded person. At the University of Texas, staff are working to engage the broader living and learning community in a wellness housing program that requires abstinence from substances to live there. The University of Vermont and Texas Tech have less formal programs. Conversely, some colleges have intensive programs, like Augsburg’s StepUP Program. This program “strives to help students champion lives of recovery, achieve academic success, and thrive in a community of accountability and support.”


Another alternative is The Haven at College, an off-campus recovery housing option that provides drug and alcohol treatment and recovery support services, from outpatient treatment centers to recovery residences to harm reduction programs for students who are just beginning to take a look at their substance usage.

What is interesting about many of these programs is that they meet students at various stages in their recovery journey. Sam Randall at the University of Colorado Boulder spoke at the 2018 National Collegiate Recovery Conference about a student who lived in an environment with students using substances. “He was really unhappy and quite depressed,” Randall says. “He got involved with us, with a sober community, and he was really on the edge himself with some of his mental health issues. Once we got him into our housing, he just blossomed. We really welcome whatever path [students] might be on. Sobriety — abstinence — is a component of being able to live there regardless of what your path to recovery might be.”


Evidence suggests that recovery housing programs have a high level of sustained recovery — an interesting consideration given that the very nature of substance in substance use disorder is defined as a condition that can feature returning to use. Colleges also report higher grade averages, lower health care costs and less property damage costs among students in recovery housing.

The Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE) reports that 95 percent of students in collegiate recovery programs maintain their recovery. This rate is considerably higher than others in recovery, which varies between 40 and 60 percent.

“Recovery housing options for college students is a critical component of the student experience,” says ARHE Executive Director Tim Rabolt. “As a college student in recovery, I was often seeing beer cans in the hall, met with strong smells of marijuana and could hear incessant partying what seemed like every night. It was not conducive to my developing recovery lifestyle.”

Looking forward, Rabolt lays out the potential landscape for recovery housing. “About five years ago, I attended my first National Collegiate Recovery Conference at Augsburg College, now Augsburg University,” he says. “I stayed in their recovery dorm with another student in recovery, and I remember envisioning how different life would be for students in recovery nationwide if they had similar options. Although it’s not a quick and easy initiative for higher education, recovery housing needs to become a higher priority for any administration that wants to support student success and holistic health.”

There are other complexities to recovery housing on campus, too. It isn’t always successful. The College of New Jersey offered sober housing in 2016 but only two students signed up. Organizers attribute the lack of interest to a lack of sober community.

Rabolt says, “There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to recovery housing, just like there is not a cookie-cutter pathway of recovery that works for every individual.”

Austin Brown, associate director of the Kennesaw State University (KSU) Center for Young Adult Addiction and Recovery, explains there must be a clear and stated need for housing of this kind, and the institution should have the capacity to take on the risk.


The National Association of Recovery Residences outlines the Recovery Residence Levels of Support, as well as member standards across property and support that students can expect (see chart above). These residences can be peer-run, monitored or supervised. Many colleges and universities have implemented or are exploring these options for their own student populations.

These operational practices and standards are crucial, says Brown. “Operating within the guidelines of the university policies, maintaining control of your housing (vs. university housing), and providing a service for the students is a very challenging task and one that should not be taken casually,” he says.

Other best practices include:

  • Have a plan: Before launching a program, determine its purpose and whether you are going to advertise it. Brown says: “This is crucial. It will greatly influence the type of student you get. The desires of parents can often crowd out the needs of the student in this area. Many do not advertise their housing for this reason but offer it when it is needed for the student, by the student.”
  • Determine the location: Decide where the housing will be located — for example, whether it will be on or off campus. This will affect liability and housing.
  • Go over legalities: Meet with a legal team to discuss the risks, formal agreement, legal right to separate a student from housing and contingency planning. “The rules of housing are often not sufficient to protect your students, and, in some cases, it may be a violation of policy to secure the safety of your students. Each campus is different, but you need to do this before,” Brown says.
  • Engage administration: Ensure administrators are on board and that they meet with students regularly. It’s wise to have a member of staff dedicated to recovery housing.
  • Document: Have clear guidelines, rules and plans. “This is essential,” Brown says. “Housing is a risky venture for a collegiate recovery program and one they may not have complete control over. If you cannot provide truly safe housing for your students, it is better to forgo the option.”
  • Remember you can say no: Reserve the right to turn down a student for housing if they are not the right match.
  • Develop alternative options: If dedicated recovery housing is not an option for your college, try matching recovering roommates together as an alternative.
  • Decide on drug testing: Decide what role, if any, drug testing may play. Similarly, consider if counseling will be a requirement of housing.
  • Create a community: Create recovery communities that foster bonding and trust-building.
  • Hold meetings: Hold regular floor/house/dorm meetings.
  • Connect to the response team: Generate an on-call rotation that has a connection to the college behavioral response team.
  • Create contingency plans: Create a plan for the possibility of a student returning to use. Establish a clear procedure for any incidents, ensuring everyone knows what to do in any situation.

“It’s a hot topic right now: Do you have housing on campus?” Randall says. “You may not need housing on campus, and that’s OK. Be careful of the status thing. What’s right for your campus?”

Writer and wellness advocate Olivia Pennelle (Liv) passionately believes in a fluid and holistic approach to recovery. Her popular site, Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, is a resource for the journey toward health and wellness. You will find Pennelle featured among top recovery writers and bloggers, published on websites such as recovery.org, The Fix, Intervene, Workit Health, iExhale, Sapling, Addiction Unscripted, Transformation Is Real, Sanford House, Winward Way and Casa Capri.

Side Note

Recovery Housing on Campus Roundtable

Sam Randall and Daniel Conroy of the University of Colorado Boulder hosted a roundtable discussion on recovery housing at the 2018 National Collegiate Recovery Conference. Here are some snippets from around the room.

Sam Randall: Most important, we had administrators meet our students. That was a really key factor for us — having our administrators meet our students because then they got it. They were like, “Oh, right! It’s awesome!” Having them learn first-hand was our first real “in” to grassroots change in our campus. … The other thing we did was we put together frequently-asked-questions. They didn’t know how to talk about recovery. They were getting emails from families that heard we were in the dorms. They were concerned that their daughter was placed in the same dorm where this community would be. So we put together an FAQ for our housing staff so they could respond — that actually being next to our students would be a great place to be. That was really helpful. Education is a big piece of it. … Now, our housing administrators are our biggest recovery advocates. We see campus-based housing is one of the fundamental pieces that changes the culture.

Jessica Medovich: I’m the program coordinator at Kennesaw State University. One of the biggest things we’re working on right now is fostering community within that smaller community and having that model behavior for our incoming students into the collegiate recovery program itself to create a greater sense of that tight-knit community.

Jason Callis: I’m the program coordinator at the University of Georgia. On the opposite end — justifying the need. I get that parents call me all the time asking if I have housing. But if I’m honest, out of the students who are coming back to the University of Georgia, I’d say 9 out of 10 don’t want to live on campus.

Addy Geenen: I’m a student at University of Michigan. Oftentimes, when they say it’s a sober living environment, it’s not. Even though we have co-ops and one is considered substance-free, co-ops are legendarily not substance free at Michigan.

Daniel Conroy: The important thing when there is a recurrence of use is there is a pathway. There is a pathway to stay, and there’s a pathway to go. I feel like that’s really important in shame reduction and reducing stigma. We are treating this as a medical issue. The safety of everybody is really important, but so is not shaming and being able to offer a pathway back into recovery.

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