Since graduating from high school a few years ago, Emily, a 21-year-old from South Carolina, has studied at the College of Charleston, the University of South Carolina and a few community colleges.
At each college, her story was the same. “I kept messing up,” she says. “I was caught up in the party lifestyle and got involved in drugs. Everywhere I went, it ended terribly.” But after Emily hit bottom and went to detox, her family helped her enroll at a different kind of institution, where long-term recovery and academic success are both priorities.
Since January, when she arrived at Sober College  -- an inpatient rehab center for young adults in Woodland Hills, Calif. – Emily, who asked that her last name not be used, has finished two college-credit courses; she is now taking two more. “I proved that I can do it and actually pass,” she says. “I just needed to get my life straight first.”
She’s not alone. Three-quarters of the 60 or so students at Sober at any one time were enrolled in college or hoping to apply, but struggled because of substance abuse problems, says Robert Pfeifer, Sober’s founder and managing partner. “Once they’re here and they’re sober, they’re able to start transitioning into college-level academics.”
After trying out academic offerings from several colleges and universities, Sober has just signed a partnership agreement with Woodbury University , a master’s level, nonprofit institution located 20 miles from Sober in Burbank. Woodbury faculty will develop courses that are based on the university’s offerings but tailored to Sober’s students, and deliver online lectures. Staff at Sober will follow up with in-person instruction and academic coaching. Both institutions will be able to use the other’s name in some marketing materials. The initial agreement will last for one year but be renewable.
“This is really an integrated approach between an addiction treatment provider and a university,” Pfeifer says. “It’s really a true partnership, with us and Woodbury using our strengths to offer academic instruction to students in treatment.”
The collaboration began in 2008, when a Woodbury professor invited a Sober class to visit the campus. Soon, Sober was offering Woodbury classes in public speaking and creative writing. “We realized that our missions were really closely aligned,” says Edward Clift, dean of Woodbury’s School of Media, Culture and Design. “Woodbury has a history with this idea of student transformation and that’s what Sober College is about.”
Under the partnership agreement, the two institutions will work to develop three more courses that Clift describes as “hands-on, lower-level and with a rather relaxed teaching methodology” that together will make up a 15-credit “Certificate of General Studies.” In the past, Sober had worked with Andrew Jackson University, an online for-profit based in Alabama, and Rio Salado College, an Arizona community college, among other institutions.
The other three courses will be in sociology (“Drugs and Alcohol in Pop Culture”), psychology (“Emotional Intelligence”) and health (“it’s going to be called ‘Principles of Healthful Living’ and be similar to the Health 101 courses taught at a lot of places,” Pfeifer says).
Sober's monthly fee is about $8,000, which includes treatment, room and board, and Woodbury classes.
All the courses will be designed “to keep a wide variety of students engaged and to connect to the material,” says Corinne Barner, Sober’s academic director. Sober takes in students from a wide variety of educational backgrounds, but aims to accommodate most in the specially-designed classes. Some have learning disabilities or struggle with rules and structure, while others have successfully completed a year or two at institutions like Pennsylvania State University and the University of Maryland.
Barner advises some students to take one course at a time, while others take as many as three, with the goal of completing them all in 8 to 12 weeks. The typical courseload is two at any one time. “We only want to do what the students can handle,” she says, “so depending on their academic experience, it might really vary.”
Rachel Sanders, Sober’s academic coach and public speaking instructor, describes the students as “a mix.” Some are motivated and “happy to take advantage of the opportunity,” she says, while others “do not want to be here” or need remedial help.
And students’ goals after successfully completing six months to a year at Sober (the average student stays for a little more than seven months) vary, too. For some students, Pfeifer says, the general studies certificate may be an end in itself. “This will be a sense of accomplishment in itself but it might get them to start thinking about continuing on.”
For others, the goal is to transfer credits to another institution but “one of the core issues is that you’re never going to want Sober College on your transcript, but Woodbury is great,” he says. The courses will be designed to meet common general education requirements and be transferable to other colleges and universities as credits earned at Woodbury, which is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
Emily hopes to eventually move on to another college or university where the credits will be recognized. “I’ll probably be here for a while longer, but I definitely have plans of going back to a four-year college,” she says. “I’m committing myself to going to class and doing the work.”
Though she has toured Woodbury’s campus and liked it, Emily thinks she wants to move back to the East Coast to be closer to her family. Any college will bring with it the temptations of drugs and alcohol, she admits, "but if I really want to stay clean and sober there are lots of influences out in the real world, not just in a college environment, and I'll have to cross that road when I come to it."
So far, Clift says, Woodbury has yet to secure any enrollments from Sober College alumni. But a Sober student who took one of the Woodbury classes has just applied to the university, as well as to the University of California at Los Angeles and Pepperdine University. The partnership is “not really a marketing channel right now,” Clift says.
The two institutions hope to create another five courses that would be less related to treatment “to slowly transition students into the full college experience,” Pfeifer says. Together, Clift says, the two sets of five classes would create a full freshman-year experience where “students win, because they get to sort of combine rehab with the first year of college.” Students might then choose to spend their sophomore year – if not their entire college experience – at Woodbury while engaged in outpatient treatment at Sober.
He adds: “If they connect with Woodbury, great. If not, we’re not trying to channel anybody into Woodbury who doesn’t want to be here, but obviously we want students to be open to that idea.”
While faculty and administrators at some institutions might turn up their noses at a formalized partnership with a rehab program, Clift insists that most people at Woodbury have been supportive of the deal. “We take a pretty broad approach to seeking diversity in the kinds of students we want to reach out to, that’s sort of the Woodbury mission,” he says. “We’re a very practical university, providing this sort of professional education with a liberal arts twist. Sober is providing treatment along with academics.”
Faculty were most skeptical about offering lectures to Sober students online and not in person, but have been convinced because of the presence of Sanders and a few other instructors at Sober. Because Sanders has a master’s degree and teaching experience at San Diego State University, she’ll be joining the Woodbury faculty.
The partnership won’t be all about academics, Clift says. Together, the two institutions hope to start a national sober living fraternity that would be headquartered at Woodbury but, ideally, spread nationwide. Recovering students, he says, “still deserve the opportunity to do the same activities as other college students, to say, 'I want to learn about the world.' ”