As a high school senior, Aaron Weir decided to attend Texas Tech University in Lubbock, not for any particular academic program but for the hospitality that school extends toward students in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction.
"I was 16 years old when I got clean and sober and I want to stay that way in college," says Mr. Weir, a 20-year-old business major now entering his junior year at Texas Tech. Among amenities including a sober-student hangout with study pods, pool tables and 12-step meetings, Mr. Weir receives a $3,000-a-year scholarship from the university for earning near-perfect grades while staying sober.
A growing number of universities are following Texas Tech's model by creating so-called recovery communities, which often feature on-campus clubhouses, recreational opportunities, academic support and recovery courses.
To promote the spread of the concept, about 20 colleges this summer formed the Association for Recovery in Higher Education. On the campus of one founding member—Georgia's Kennesaw State University—the community of 50 recovering students is up from three when the program was launched in 2008.
Two Big Ten giants, the University of Michigan and Penn State University, this summer are launching recovery programs that they expect eventually to serve hundreds of students, not only addicts but also the adult children and siblings of substance abusers.
With a starting budget of $10,000 from university health-service funds, Michigan's Collegiate Recovery Program offers counseling, self-help recovery courses and alcohol- and drug-free activities to help students steer clear of tempting situations. Penn State is dedicating campus space and staff to its new recovery program.
Among Americans seeking treatment for substance abuse, no demographic is growing faster than students age 18 to 24. During the decade ended in 2009, treatment providers say the number of students in that age range seeking help more than doubled, compared with a nine percent jump in the 25-and-older category, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The rate of heavy alcohol use—defined as five or more drinks on five or more occasions within the past 30 days—is highest among Americans aged 20 to 22, according to SAMHSA. And within that demographic, consumption is heaviest among college students.
Students exiting treatment have long been advised to live at home and commute to class or else postpone college until possessed of a significant spell of sobriety.
"For a young person trying to stay sober, college can be a very, very difficult place," says Joseph Lee, a psychiatrist at Minnesota treatment provider Hazelden, who specializes in youths and young adults. This summer Hazelden is opening a high-end recovery dorm in New York City for students from any nearby college.
Most colleges and universities offer few if any services for students trying to get or stay clean and sober. Often, the only recovery services are off-campus 12-step meetings, typically populated by middle-aged residents of the neighboring communities, recovery experts say.
Left to fend for themselves amid opportunities and pressure to partake, students often drop out or flunk out. College administrators say booze and drug usage plays a role in the 20 percent dropout rate of among college freshmen.