Chapter 4: The StepUP Program at Augsburg: Overcoming the Stigma of Addiction on a University Campus

by Paul C. Pribbenow, Ph.D.

Posted on January 05, 2017

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It began nearly 20 years ago with one student, a student who went to one of his professors with a remarkable story. As he recounts it, the student told the faculty member that he was in recovery from addiction and that college was a really tough place for someone in recovery to negotiate. The faculty member responded with humility and compassion: "I don't know anything about recovery, but if I can help you succeed in college, we will go on this path together."

And that is how the StepUP Program at Augsburg College was created. A couple of years later, the student had graduated, the faculty member had learned about young people in recovery, and the college began the journey of creating what is now "the gold standard in collegiate recovery," according to the White House Office of Drug Enforcement.

This is a story about overcoming the stigma of addiction on a college campus, a stigma that many of our students face and that higher education leaders must address.  

In many ways, the StepUP Program reflects Augsburg's long-standing commitment to access and excellence for all of its students, now more than 3,500 strong. Our mission – "to educate students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers and responsible leaders" – and our faith tradition as a college of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), committed to educating students for service, both support the ways in which the StepUP Program advances our mission on campus and in the world.

This is a chapter about residence life on a college campus – and I will illustrate how the StepUP Program evolved into a robust living and learning community – but this also is a story about overcoming the stigma of addiction on a college campus, a stigma that many of our students face and that higher education leaders must address.

What is StepUP? A Collegiate Recovery Community
The StepUP Program officially began in the fall of 1997 with 23 students enrolled. The program focuses on young adults, ages 17-26, who wish to pursue an undergraduate degree. When it launched, the college had no chemical-free living environment or formal support program for students in recovery, and the proposed StepUP Program aimed to provide both.

StepUP is a recovery-based support program that provides structure for students as part of a network of collegiate recovery programs (CRP) originally begun at Brown University in the 1970s.  

Now serving more than 100 undergraduate students in a dedicated residential facility, StepUP is a recovery-based support program that provides structure for the students enrolled. Entering students must be at least six months sober before entering the program, and all students are tested randomly while in the program for drug or alcohol use. Students are required to attend classes, attend mandatory meetings with peers and counselors and refrain from using drugs or alcohol.

Originally, the StepUP Program housed students in existing townhouses on campus. Though this provided a chemical-free community, these townhouses were part of a larger residential complex that

was not chemical-free. This was a challenge on both philosophical and practical levels. In 2005, Augsburg made plans to construct the Oren Gateway Center, a multi-use facility designed to include dedicated space for the StepUP Program (both its offices and residences). The 106 beds in the Oren Center (half of the total residential beds for students in recovery in the country) are grouped in community settings, with bedrooms surrounding common living rooms and kitchens. The building is designated as chemical-free, in the residences and in the other spaces in the building, which include classrooms, administrative offices, a bookstore and café. The Oren Center opened in the fall of 2007.

The StepUP Program is part of a network of collegiate recovery programs (CRP), originally begun at Brown University in the 1970s. Texas Tech University and Rutgers University opened programs in the 1980s, and the StepUP Program followed in the mid-1990s. Texas Tech, Rutgers and Augsburg are still recognized as pioneers and leaders in the network, even as dozens of other schools have joined the network and sought ways to serve students in recovery within the context of their missions (Botzet, et al., 2007;

There now is considerable research that shows how these CRPs are effective. Importantly, they are not treatment programs; they are student support programs with two key success factors: community and professional staff. Students often come to the StepUP Program on referrals from treatment facilities and need the continued support of a strong community, a community that creates a social network to meet the belonging needs of students. The community also helps to provide multiple opportunities for sober and safe recreation, serving as a sort of "counter-culture" to the traditional party scenes that define the college experience. In addition, successful CRPs have program staff trained and experienced in addiction disorders. These counselors provide both addiction counseling and support for co-occurring mental health challenge students often face (Harris, et al., 2007; Botzet, ibid).

The StepUP Program has several factors that make it distinctive in the collegiate recovery network. First, it is recovery-in-residence – not simply a student organization but a 24/7 support community. It has professional counseling services at a ratio of 19 students to each counselor. The program also focuses on leadership development and has its own student governance system that partners with staff to guide and improve the program. In addition, the College offers a wide range of academic support services for all of its students, including the Center for Learning Adaptive Student Services, which provides accommodations for learning and physical challenges and offers unparalleled support for StepUP Program students who may present with such needs. Finally, the location of Augsburg and its StepUP Program in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul means that the program benefits from a rich and robust recovery community with a history of chemical dependency treatment and recovery resources at institutions such as Hazelden Betty Ford and the Retreat (

How Does StepUP Work? Key Outcomes of the Program
As my presidential colleagues learn about the StepUP Program, they invariably are moved by the difference the program makes for students in recovery, but they also quickly ask about how we afford it. The tuition for StepUP Program students is the same as for all undergraduates. The fees are the same. The room and board charge is a bit higher, but mainly because of the relatively new facilities. In other words, we do not charge StepUP Program students more to cover the additional costs of dedicated residences and staff support.

So, how do we do it? First, we take great pride in the most important outcomes of the program. StepUP Program students have an average GPA of 3.2, and the average abstinence rate is 92%. In other words, StepUP Program students are successful both academically and in staying sober. That is a story we tell far and wide. These are students who have endured significant challenges in their young lives, and our program helps turn their lives around, sending them into the world as emerging professionals, good citizens and remarkable role models.

More than 500,000 young people emerge from addiction treatment programs in the United States each year – surely a robust pipeline for admissions efforts.  

That said, the program is expensive! In its first decade or so, StepUP benefited from both federal and state earmarks that helped subsidize the program. In recent years, however, those funds have dried up, and we have needed to create strategic plans that position the program for long-term sustainability. To that end, a StepUP Program Advisory Board was formed, comprised both of graduates of the program and key leaders in the recovery community around the country. They set about to ensure that the program will thrive, both in the quality of its programming and in its reach to more and more students in recovery.

The early work of the StepUP Program Advisory Board in this planning is instructive in three key ways.

  • First, they did the math. They plumbed the data about student retention rates (higher than the college average) and graduation rates (also higher than the college average). These statistics alone show that the investment pays off in persistence and success – we all know that retaining students is less expensive than recruiting them. They also learned that more than 500,000 young people emerge from addiction treatment programs in the United States each year – surely a robust pipeline for admissions efforts.
  • Second, they delved into net tuition revenue for StepUP Program students and found that on average over the past five years, StepUP Program students have provided more than $5,000 of additional net revenue per student. In other words, the 100 StepUP Program students provide $500,000 of additional net revenue compared with other undergraduate students.
  • Finally, they pursued philanthropic campaigns to enhance and extend the program. The families of students in recovery, along with the robust recovery community in the region and across the country, have responded to the impact of the StepUP Program with remarkable generosity. An annual gala event raises more than $350,000 for the program, funds that support the StepUP Program endowment and are also used to offset operational costs; for example, the advisory board determined that dedicated StepUP Program admissions and fundraising staff would advance their plans, and so they paid for these positions from gala proceeds. In addition, the advisory board has joined with the College as part of an endowment campaign to raise $10 million for the StepUP Program, the proceeds of which will enable the program to grow its numbers and quality. As of fall 2016, the advisory board has raised more than $4 million toward the goal.

Why StepUP? Overcoming the Stigma of Addiction on Campus and Beyond
Each fall, I have the opportunity to welcome new students into our StepUP Program, and in getting to know these young people, it is clear to me that they do as much to enrich and shape Augsburg as the College does in support of their success. This is a critical aspect of how we overcome the stigma of addiction on our campus and beyond. There are lessons to learn about how to support recovery efforts in various settings.

Our intersecting stories weave a social fabric for our lives. People leading lives of recovery are wonderful storytellers. The stories are often full of heartache and tragedy and recklessness before they turn to healing and redemption. But this is what life looks like – stories of all sorts – depictions of reality that we must tell and hear, recognizing the messiness that often marks our personal and common lives. The sharing of our stories helps us understand what Stephen Crites, Wesleyan University professor emeritus, called "the narrative quality of human experience."

We embrace the deep ties between what we believe and how we live our lives. This is about belief in the higher power—the deep and spiritual experiences that fundamentally change our perspectives, our relationships, and our values. The concept of "vocation" – or calling – is powerfully integrated into the Augsburg educational experience. We believe that our lives have significance and meaning and that our higher power is working through us to accomplish good in the world.

What we learn about ourselves and from each other in all of our relationships leads us toward living as people who know that life is a gift.  

We affirm that the opportunities to be in community, to be educated and to be known and loved carry with them the obligations to be of service to others, to give back and to know and love our neighbors. At Augsburg, the idea of education for service is at the heart of our character as a college. Education, thus, is so much more than what we learn from books or in classrooms; it is our life in community and in the world. What we learn about ourselves and from each other in all of our relationships leads us toward living as people who know that life is a gift.

We are committed to learning to "pay attention" and helping each other attend to the most important people and values in our lives. We all live in a world full of temptations and distractions, so how do we learn to pay attention to the most important people and values? Here is a lesson I have learned so well from getting to know our StepUP Program professionals and students: they have taught – and continue to teach – me that paying attention to your spirituality, to your higher power, to your powerlessness and then to the family and friends who love you are at the core of recovery and all of life.

Augsburg is immensely proud of its StepUP Program and the impact it has on the students and families it serves, as well as the way the program extends the College's mission. It has proven to be an effective housing strategy, with strong returns on our investments in dedicated residences. At the same time, it reflects the College's deepest values around meeting students where they are, educating them for lives of meaning and purpose and then watching with great joy the difference they make in the world.

Sources Cited

Association of Recovery in Higher Education (ARHE),

Augsburg College StepUP® Program,

Botzet, A., Winters, K. & Fahrnhorst, T. (2007). "An exploratory assessment of a college substance abuse recovery program: Augsburg College's StepUP Program." Journal of Groups in Addiction & Recovery, 2: 2-4, 257-270.

Harris, K., Baker, A., Kimball, T. & Shumway, S. (2007). "Achieving systems-based sustained recovery: A comprehensive model for collegiate recovery communities." Journal of Groups in Addiction & Recovery, 2: 2-4, 220-237.