Collegiate recovery programs are essential for students battling addiction

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UC Berkeley students on campus on Sather road in Berkeley.

Credit: Alison Yin / EdSource

Patrick Acuña entered the University of California, Irvine as an undergraduate. In recovery from methamphetamine and heroin usage, he entered the UC system with the hope of being supported while he was starting a new academic and social journey. Acuña said maintaining his recovery is vital to him because he knows for sure he “doesn’t want to go back to what once was” — staying up for days on end when he was in active addiction. 

The normalization of drinking, substance use and other potentially harmful behaviors campuses is a scary reality for folks in recovery. This disconnect from healthier peers can be isolating and damaging, especially because community can serve as an essential support system. For students entering college, this, in addition to academic stress, new financial responsibilities and more, can increase the risk of relapse. 

But on-campus collegiate recovery programs can help students navigate these pressures as part of the continuum of care that is essential to maintaining and solidifying recovery.

Unfortunately, UC Irvine lacked a collegiate recovery program that could have supported Acuña in these challenges. Currently, only six out of the 10 UC campuses have a developing or established collegiate recovery program. The programs that do exist vary widely in their staffing capacity and the range of services they provide.

This discrepancy must be addressed; collegiate recovery programs systemwide should be staffed with at least one full-time staff member, a dedicated and safe physical space and institutional funding.

Trey Murray, an undergraduate student at UC Santa Barbara, said, “I remember coming to UCSB, a quarter behind all the other freshmen because I spent the summer in a treatment center. I was terrified of college as a whole and especially scared of navigating school while staying sober. (The collegiate recovery program) provided me with a safe and recovery-supportive environment that was crucial to my success in school and sobriety. (It) gave me a place to fit in on campus and sparked joy and passion in my student life.”

Collegiate recovery programs provide resources such as substance-free social events, harm reduction supplies such as fentanyl test strips and the overdose medication naloxone, campuswide educational programming, recovery housing, referrals to higher levels of care, and support groups led by peers who are familiar with the social isolation and distinct difficulties of maintaining sobriety or reducing their usage in collegiate settings where substance use is a standard part of social experiences.

These programs are a vital support for students in recovery from substance abuse, other behavioral addictions, eating disorders and similar conditions. According to a report from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1 in 7 people aged 18 to 25 meets the diagnostic criteria for a substance-use disorder. Among college students specifically, that number is closer to 1 in 4. Furthermore, data from the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment shows that students at every UC campus are using substances and seeking recovery-supportive communities.

For Acuña, integration of recovery into his everyday life was a much bigger challenge due to the lack of a collegiate recovery program on his campus. “I always have to be vigilant with my recovery; I wouldn’t ever say I have arrived at recovery,” he notes. He didn’t get the needed assistance a collegiate recovery program would have provided regarding hosting on-campus support groups, connecting him to clinicians, allowing him to find a supportive community of peers on campus, and providing an accessible, safe place to go when faced with stressors, activators or urges. Instead, he had to find ways to travel off campus and relied largely on other forms of peer support through student organizations and identity-based clubs such as Underground Scholars to have community and connection with his peers. These organizations, however, are not specifically geared for recovery.

An undergraduate student shared why they had chosen to attend UC Santa Cruz, which has a staffed and funded collegiate recovery program: “My biggest fear in coming to college was relapsing. Having (a collegiate recovery program) during my college experience with its substance-free events and programming, as well as support groups to meet people with shared experiences, has been tremendously helpful in my recovery.”

Recovery as a process is more taxing than a full-time job, as it requires constantly challenging the unhelpful coping mechanisms one has been using for so long, and collegiate recovery programs can support students especially well through their on-campus presence and support.

Preliminary research shows that collegiate recovery programs contribute to better academic outcomes. Data from Texas Tech University, which is home to one of the country’s oldest collegiate recovery programs, suggests that its members have higher graduation rates and higher GPAs than the general student body. Data collected from such programs nationwide show that participating students have almost a 90% graduation rate compared with a 61% institutionwide graduation rate.

As Esse Pink, a master’s student at UCLA, said, “Without the UCLA collegiate recovery program, my life trajectory would be far worse. I would not have stayed sober, I would not have graduated with my bachelor’s, I may not even be alive.”


Aditi Hariharan is a third year student at UC Davis, majoring in both political science and nutrition science (public health emphasis). She served as the ACQUIRE vice chair on behalf of the UC Student Association in 2023-24.

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