Second Chances And New Pathways Through Online Education: Opening Doors And Creating Possibilities For College Students In Recovery

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Brief Abstract

Popular culture paints college in the U.S. as synonymous with drinking and drug use. Institutions offer myriad prevention programs to help students make responsible choices. But, what about those individuals who are in recovery from substance use disorders and need to maintain sobriety? While some students in recovery are fortunate to attend colleges with "collegiate recovery programs," the vast majority do not. This session will explore the capacity of online education to open college opportunities and create possibilities for individuals in recovery.


Becki Elkins is associate professor and director of the Ed.D. program in the Department of Student Affairs Administration at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She teaches courses on higher education organization and governance, law and policy, history, and student affairs administration in on-campus, online, and hybrid instructional formats. Prior to joining the faculty at UWL, Elkins worked in student affairs/higher education for roughly 25 years. Elkins holds a Ph.D. in Student Affairs Administration and Research from the University of Iowa, a master’s degree from Iowa State University, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas. Her current research focuses on college students in recovery from substance use disorders. She is the co-editor of 'College Students in Recovery: Creating Space for Student Success,' a New Directions for Student Services monograph.

Extended Abstract

Popular culture paints college in the U.S. as synonymous with drinking and drug use. Institutions offer myriad prevention programs to help students make responsible choices. In fact, abundant research about college student drinking has been generated over the past several decades as student affairs professionals have sought answers to what appears to be a national problem (DeJong, Larimer, Wood, & Hartman, 2009). Studies have brought to light the frequency and characteristics of student drinking, particularly binge-drinking (Wechsler, Dowdall, Davenport, & Castillo, 1995; Presley, Leichliter, & Meilman, 1999); consequences of alcohol misuse (Powell, Williams, & Wechsler, 2004); environmental factors contributing to college student drinking (Wechsler & Nelson, 2008); and, strategies for addressing the problem (Carey et al., 2007).

While student drinking has garnered attention, little is known about the experiences of students in recovery from alcohol or substance use disorder (Bell et al., 2009; Perron et al., 2011; Terrion, 2012). Based on research indicating that between 6-8% of college students met the criteria for alcohol use disorder (Knight et al., 2002; Wu et al., 2007), Misch (2009) estimated that over 1,000,000 college students in the U.S. during the 2008-09 academic year fit the definition of alcoholics. Research in 2013 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association [SAMHSA] reported that 21% of 18-25-year-olds fit the definition of heavy drinkers. Quoting more recent SAMSHSA research, Shadley (2020) argued that an estimated 1 in 10 college students had a diagnosable substance use disorder. Although the numbers of college students in recovery are difficult to predict (Perron et al., 2011), the estimates of college students meeting these criteria suggest the potential that a substantial number of college students may be in recovery from substance use disorders.

In fact, the number of institutions with collegiate recovery programs (CRPs) grew from 4 in 2000 to 33 in 2014 (Laudet et al., 2014) to approximately 135 in 2020 (ARHE, 2020). Early research results point to prevention of relapse and completion of educational goals as indicators of the success of such programs (Cleveland et al., 2007; Laudet et al., 2014). Despite this growth and potential, only a small fraction (less than 5%) of the overall number of degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the U.S. have collegiate recovery programs. It is likely, then, that the vast majority of college students in recovery from substance use disorders are attending institutions without specifically recognized recovery programs. Limited research exists on students in recovery from alcohol dependence, particularly those students attempting to remain sober while attending institutions without recovery programs (Kerksiek, et al. 2008; Terrion, 2012).

Given the difficulty of navigating campus drinking culture and the stigma associated with addiction along with the challenges of acquiring social and recovery capital (e.g., housing, financial security, etc.), online education is uniquely situated to provide access to higher education and create opportunities for individuals in recovery from substance use disorder. This session will help individuals expand their knowledge and understanding of the needs of college students in recovery - both from the perspective of maintaining sobriety as well as their learning and development needs. As a result of this enhanced knowledge of the learning/development and support needs of students in recovery from substance use disorders, college and university faculty, staff, and administrators will be better prepared to advise and support them.


Association of Recovery in Higher Education. (2016). Collegiate recovery program members. Retrieved from

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Cleveland, H. H., Harris, K. S., Baker, A. K., Herbert, R., & Dean, L. R. (2007). Characteristics of a collegiate recovery community: Maintaining recovery in an abstinence-hostile environment. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 33(1), 13-23.

DeJong, W., Larimer, M. E., Wood, M. D., & Hartman, R. (2009). NIAAA’s rapid response to college drinking problems initiative: Reinforcing the use of evidence-based approaches in college alcohol prevention. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. 16 (Suppl.), 5-11.

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Shadley, M. (2020). Campus strategies for supporting students in recovery. In B. Elkins & P. J. Rosenthal (Eds.), College students in recovery: Creating space for success. New Directions for Student Services, No. 169, pp. 73-85. Jossey-Bass.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of national findings. Rockville, MD: Author.

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