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More "Sober" Housing Options Available to New Jersey College Students

Posted by Joseph D. Lento | Jul 17, 2016 | 0 Comments

It is understood that college students, when embarking upon their academic careers, are often young.  With youth comes inexperience, and many college students struggle to make good choices when faced with alcohol or drug use, as well as other social situations that require good judgment.  Because college students, and people in general, often learn from mistakes, it is not surprising that poor choices are a common occurrence on college and university campuses in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and nationwide.

Regretfully, it takes some college students more tries than others to get it “right,” but that is sometimes the nature of life.  College and university students (and their parents), almost always spending significant amounts of money on tuition, room and board, and related expenses, not to mention the long-term implications of student debt, do not always have the luxury of time however.  If the expense and growing pains of college are not reason enough for worry, whether alcohol and/or drug dependency issues are involved or not, students and parents also have to be concerned about the potential implications, both short and long-term, of school disciplinary violations which can result from students' behavior both on and off campus; including alcohol-related offenses, drug-related offenses, and the many other potential issues caused by irresponsible decisions.

Ryan is one student who tried multiple times in life and made his share of irresponsible decisions to realize that the mistakes he was making would not resolve themselves.  It took Ryan's pending enrollment to his fifth school, the University of Miami, to make him recognize that unless he made changes, the result would remain the same – In the past, Ryan would enroll in college, eager to start fresh and focus on the task and opportunity at hand.  Ryan's demons would return, however, and he would again start abusing alcohol and using drugs.  When he could no longer maintain the facade of being a student, Ryan would drop out of school.

Knowing a major change was needed, Ryan was fortunate to discover a program at Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey, that helped college students who struggled with dependency issues.  He enrolled at Rutgers and choose to live in the University's “Recovery House,” a dorm that offers students “substance-free” housing and activities for students in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction; a strategy Rutgers developed in 1988.

It was not an easy road, but with the support of Rutgers University's Recovery House, Ryan remained sober, excelled in his classes, and graduated cum laude from Rutgers in May 2016.  "It was a safe space with [students] who were trying to do what I was trying to do," noted Ryan, 25, who asked to be identified only by his first name to protect his privacy - "No one was talking about going out and getting drunk. It was the antithesis of my previous dorm experiences, where the shackles are off and [students] go crazy."

Ryan is a success story, but there are many other college and university students who struggle with alcohol and drug issues and do not have the same resources that were available to Ryan. The number of students who find themselves struggling in college will hopefully decrease as more attention is focused on this issue.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a law that requires a every New Jersey state-run college and university to offer substance-free student housing if at least a quarter of its students live on campus.  The New Jersey law gives colleges and universities fours years to comply, but some schools have been proactive in addressing this campus concern.  The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), for example, opened a substance-free dorm last fall; also known as "sober" housing. 

Rutgers University and The College of New Jersey did so on their own initiative, but other New Jersey public colleges and universities subject to the legislation include: Kean University, Montclair State University, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Ramapo College, Rowan University, Stockton University, Thomas Edison State University, and William Paterson University.  Although New Jersey is at the forefront among states requiring sober housing for students attending its public research universities and state colleges and universities, it is good to see that the steps taken by some New Jersey schools have either recently been, or will be taken at schools in other states as well.  For example, Texas Tech University opened substance-free student housing in 2011, and Oregon State University will do so this coming school year.

Experts in alcohol and drug abuse praise the steps taken by Rutgers, TCNJ, and other schools.  Robert DuPont, a psychiatrist who specializes in drug abuse, regards sober dorms as a "major new development in the recovery movement...that get to the heart of the beast."  DuPont also heads the Institute for Behavior and Health, a drug-policy think tank in Maryland, and previously served as the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse from 1973 to 1978.  It is not surprising that students who abuse alcohol or drugs get lower grades and drop out of college at a higher rate than students who do not struggle with dependency issues.  Whether in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or nationwide, college students are "surrounded by people who are using alcohol and drugs in addictive ways.  Someone else, [usually parents], is paying the bills, and there's no supervision," states DuPont.  The good news according to DuPont is that once a college student gets into recovery, "it's stunning how many [students] were failing before and are now getting A's."

Before Ryan enrolled at Rutgers University and had the support of the campus' Recovery House, his experiences at his four prior schools with how commonplace alcohol and drug abuse was not unusual.  It may come as no surprise that college and university campuses are centers of hardcore partying - More than 35 percent of American college students report they have had more than five drinks in one sitting in the past two weeks, compared with 29 percent of peers not in college; 43 percent of college students report they have been drunk in the past month, compared with 34 percent of peers not in college. Daily marijuana use among full-time college students (almost 6 percent, according to one study) has more than tripled in the past 20 years, and cocaine use is on the rise.

Substance-free housing is a step in the right direction because in the past, college students generally had few resources available to them other than campus student health services, local Alcoholic Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous chapters, and to some students, private treatment providers.  The climate on college and university campuses is changing however.  Whereas a decade ago resources were limited, approximately 150 colleges and universities in 49 states offer student recovery programs that include counseling, peer support, and campus activities to keep recovering students focused on their treatment goals.

Rutgers University is one New Jersey school where a tragedy resulted in changes on campus.  In the late 1970s, an intoxicated Rutgers student was paralyzed after falling out of the bleachers at a football game.  By no means the only issue associated with student drinking over the years at Rutgers, the incident led the school to investigate student drinking and student alcohol abuse.  Lisa Laitman, director of Rutgers University's Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Program, notes that the investigation revealed that student drinking at the school was much more extensive than previously thought.

Laitman came to Rutgers University in 1983 when it hired her to create a recovery program, one of the first in the country among colleges and universities.  Despite 50,000 students across its New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden campuses, Laitman was the only alcohol counselor at Rutgers University in the early days.  With time came additional staff and resources to meet student needs, and Rutgers' Recovery House was opened on the New Brunswick campus at Laitman's direction.  Before Rutgers' Recovery House was opened, Laitman notes that "Rutgers students in recovery were living in regular dorms, had no support, and felt isolated and alone."

Rutgers University now has sober housing at its New Brunswick and Newark campus which is available to Rutgers students who have been sober for at least 90 days.  Like Ryan, "many students transfer to Rutgers University with the purpose of joining the school's recovery program and living in a sober dorm," notes Laitman.  Rutgers welcomes all students who could benefit from its Recovery House, but to try to ensure residents would be a good fit, prospective residents must interview with counselors and current dorm residents.  After being accepted into the Recovery House, Rutgers students are required to attend at least two 12-step meetings a week. Residents are also encouraged to participate in the Recovery House's extracurricular activities.

As Ryan experienced when he first went off to college, college is a time for personal and intellectual growth, but often away from parents and family for the first time and with limited supervision, college students are often confronted with first-time social situations, and with that, difficult decisions; many of which involve alcohol and drugs.  Many students will make responsible choices in college, but there is good news for those who struggle with their choices - According to the Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE), 95 percent of students involved in recovery programs at colleges and universities nationwide do not relapse.  This stands in stark contrast to relapse rates in the general population which range between 40 and 60 percent. 

As demonstrated by the success of Rutgers University's Recovery House and students such as Ryan, Rutgers students who need a helping hand "flourish" due to the support and resources available with substance-free student housing.  Laitman knows well that, despite the challenges, students who are in recovery can succeed on a college campus - "As long as you can provide [college students] with friends and a place that's safe and a certain amount of activity, they do really well."

About the Author

Joseph D. Lento

"I pride myself on having heart and driving hard to get results!" Joseph D. Lento has more than a decade of experience passionately fighting for the futures of his clients. Mr. Lento represents students and others in disciplinary cases and other proceedings at universities and colleges across the United States while concurrently fighting in criminal courtrooms in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania counties, and New Jersey. Mr. Lento has helped countless students, professors, and others in academia at more than a thousand universities and colleges across the United States. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and well-being. Joseph D. Lento is licensed in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, and is admitted pro hac vice as needed nationwide.

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