Sober College Campuses Popping Up Across America

MastHead Outline
July 23, 2019

Most students leaving for college have not had to deal with issues related to substance use disorder and college becomes an opportunity to be exposed to and experience over-indulgence, while trying to balance school work, of course. When leaving home to pursue their education, students often feel that this is their first taste of freedom from their parents, and a time when they will be responsible for making their own decisions, both good and bad. It’s practically an ongoing joke among parents and students that substance use on college campuses is abundant, and it’s almost socially acceptable and “part of the experience” for students living away from home for the first time. In 2014, roughly 12.4 million college students aged 15 to 24 residing in the US, and one-third of these full-time students engaged in binge drinking, with one out of five using illicit drugs within the past month. In fact, substance use is currently the most serious public health issue for young people in the US, resulting in health, social, and economic consequences for students in college, their families, and surrounding communities.

Experts say it’s become a more significant issue in recent years partially because of the opioid epidemic and the number of students in recovery who are looking to attend college where they are not regularly surrounded by drugs and alcohol. There have also been recent spikes in college students developing substance use disorders while enrolled in school, making it a difficult issue for students, parents, and educators alike. These events have spurred the concept of “sober campuses” that have been helping aspiring students and loved ones of those with substance use disorders with the recovery process and creating a safe space for those who feel that they may be predisposed to or have previously been negatively affected by addiction.

College Culture and Peer-Pressure

Generations of people fondly think back to their college days of partying, keg stands, Greek life, and what most remember as playful recklessness of their early twenties. In fact, students involved in fraternities and sororities are 26% more likely to binge drink and misuse drugs, according to the US Department of Education’s Higher Education Center. Living on a college campus is a time for many people to experiment with substances for the first time without the worry of their parents’ finding out. Those who are lucky graduate college without any harmful or lasting consequences of their experimentation, but those statistics are changing, partially because of heightened awareness and more defined symptoms of addiction compared to just a decade ago. In 2015, 7.8% of people aged 12 and over reported having substance use disorder. There are various factors of college culture that can lead young people to substance misuse, and most of them are virtually unavoidable when living on campus.

Peer Pressure: The stress of fitting in when meeting new people in college is immense, especially for college freshman. Many are leaving high school friends behind and moving into the dorms, which calls for a lot of social interaction, especially around drugs and alcohol as social lubrication. It’s not uncommon for people’s first experiences with substance misuse to be in social settings where they feel they would be left out or disliked if they didn’t participate.

Curiosity: Young people may be exposed to substance use starting at an early age with casual drinking around relatives, to more specific situations among friends in high school. As they enter college, they are beginning their journey of self-exploration, and it’s not uncommon for them to experiment with substances that were previously deemed scary and harmful. Becoming an adult can unlock a certain sense of freedom for many, naturally causing them to seek out new aspects of their lives.

Workload: College course materials and workloads are unmatched. High school served to prepare students for balancing their homework and studying without too much handholding, but with the mounting pressures of grades, test scores, scholarships, and financial aid, students feel they are being pushed harder than ever to perform. This is a time when many may dabble with performance-enhancing stimulants to help give me studying “superpowers” that can quickly become very addictive.

Stress: School and stress go hand in hand, even before college. With projects, exams, high-level classes, and social life, it can quickly become overwhelming for young people whose brains are still developing. Not everyone is equipped to deal with so much at such a young age, which can make drugs an attractive escape for those who are not able to cope.

Collegiate Recovery Programs

With around 30% of college students battling substance use disorder or substance misuse, there is a growing need for a revamp of traditional campus culture. Students looking to avoid substances on college campuses have found themselves left out and isolated from their peers, making the stress of their studies even greater. Before 1977, there weren’t any programs available on college grounds for students dealing with addiction, but since then, the idea has been elevated into the creation of entire sober campuses, or at the very least, programs for students in recovery.

One of these developments is called “CRPs,” or collegiate recovery programs. They help students stay sober and remain on track with their college studies. CRPs are rich with resources for students like mental health and substance use counseling, peer group support, and a wide range of substance-free activities where students can meet without the pressure of drinking or drug use. At some universities, there are entire factions of sober student housing where substances are strictly prohibited, and students looking to remain sober don’t have to deal with any after hours exposure. CRPs have increased from 35 to 150 in just five years, with 50 of them including sober residence halls. These programs are providing an invaluable tool for young people in recovery or those who may be predisposed genetically to addiction. There are also students that may have grown up with a relative with substance use disorder that has negatively impacted their lives. It’s only understandable that students who are spending thousands of dollars in tuition should have a safe and drug-free campus to reside and learn on, should they choose to.

Young people should have options when it comes to going off to college, especially when their health is in question. The idea of sober programs and campuses will hopefully only continue to grow over time. For those looking to enroll in a sober campus or CRPs, there are different ratings available online to make the school hunt easier. Campus culture may still be regarded as a fun part of growing up for some, but the realities of addiction and youths with substance use disorder is becoming more of a reality across the country. With the cost of tuition rising more than ever before, students struggling with substance misuse or the pressures to indulge in substances on campus at colleges should not be left to fend for themselves.