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Articles / Campus Life / Substance-Free College Housing

Substance-Free College Housing

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | July 28, 2015
If you're involved in the college process right now or know someone who is a college student who lives on campus, you have probably heard of so-called “substance-free" housing (SFH). What is that and why does it exist?

For starters, think about the stereotypes of college life. What's one of the most common images that comes to mind? Fraternity parties? Empty beer kegs flying through windows? Staggering students? The smell of hops, barley, and cigarette or marijuana smoke permeating the air? Stereotypes exist for a reason. They're sometimes quite accurate.

If you are turned off by these kinds of behaviors, then you may want to explore the SFH options at the colleges to which you're considering applying. There are quite a few.

I did a search for schools that offer substance-free housing and, as usual, was overwhelmed with links. One link that came up quite high on the first page of search returns was this one, which had a partial but interesting list of schools. Here's a sampling:

– Albright College (Reading, PA): Single-sex floors, apartments. Honors, first-year, substance-free, and break housing

Bucknell University (Lewisburg, PA): Substance-free, Judaic studies, Afro-American studies, and environmental cooperative housing

James Madison University (Harrisonburg, VA): Theme housing for international, learning, and substance-free, and second-year experience communities. Fraternity houses located off campus

New York University (New York, NY): Wellness, theme, substance-free, first-year experience, sophomore experience, living learning, and co-ed housing

Babson College (Babson Park, MA): Substance-free, special-interest, and discounted housing

The more cynical among us can question the effectiveness of SFH. I have heard doubters say that some SFH residents live where there are no “substances" but then wander away from their SF dorms and head to parties here and there. Thus, they cite an element of hypocrisy. What do some media say about how well SFH works?

" … As it turns out, it does make a difference.," says The New York Times. “No one claims that students who live in substance-free housing abstain from smoking, drinking alcohol or using drugs. But at least according to one survey, they don't indulge as much as others. A 2001 study of more than 14,000 students nationwide found that, compared with other students, only three-fifths as many residents of substance-free housing reported binge drinking in the previous two weeks.

“There were other benefits, too. Students in substance-free housing, the study found, were less likely to experience alcohol-related problems, like getting behind in schoolwork, damaging property, getting into trouble with the police or riding with a drunken driver.

“There is, of course, a chicken-and-egg element to these findings. Students hoping for a college experience that bears some relationship to "Animal House" are not likely to opt for substance-free housing. …

" … At many campuses, residents of regular dorms, and even those assigned to substance-free housing they did not request, say they are glad the option exists.

“'I think it's good that colleges have a wellness choice,' said Beatrice Capestany, a freshman who was assigned to the wellness corridor of Vassar's sole remaining all-female dorm, although she did not request it. 'My dorm is a really good place to come back home to if I've gone out. It smells a lot nicer than some other dorms, too.' On that same wellness corridor, Victoria Ramsey and Kathryn Thomas, both freshmen, could not be more pleased with their choice.

“'I don't drink or smoke, and our corridor is clean and quiet,' said Ms. Ramsey.

“Ms. Thomas added: 'I wanted a quiet place for studying. Sometimes it's a refuge, for people who come and stay till they know the party on their floor has died down.'"

Okay. That's the positive side of the SFH coin. To remain fair and balanced, let's take a look at the flip side, and a few points from Andrew Gottlieb's Why substance free housing is a bad idea.

“I was surprised to learn that substance free residents are allowed to drink, and even more surprised to learn that many do drink. Even despite these surprises, my freshmen experience has led me to take serious issue with the idea of substance-free housing. It is simply unnecessary, unfair and divisive to designate entire floors as substance free.

" … If someone is firm in his or her decision not to partake in drinking, he or she could do so no matter where he or she lives. If he or she prefers not even to have alcohol in the room, there could be an option to choose a substance free roommate, without designating entire floors as substance free.

“The substance free designation is unfair because often the decision to live on a substance-free floor is not left in the hands of a student. I have met many students whose parents forced them to live on a sub-free floor, or worse, I have met students who did not ask to live on a sub-free floor but were put on one anyway simply because Residential Life needed to fill rooms. College is a place where at long last, young people achieve full independence. Creating a living option that may be preferable to many parents but not to their children is a disservice to students and an intrusion on the independence that college promises. …

" … The fact is that throughout almost every Wash. U. graduate's life, they will have to work with and probably live with or near people who do not agree with their personal decisions about alcohol and other substances. An important chance to prepare for this aspect of life comes in college. The opportunity to live with, understand and respect the different choices of one's classmates is invaluable. Washington University should recognize this important opportunity and change its housing policies, which currently hamper it."

Gottlieb confirms that SFH residents do, indeed, imbibe, which somewhat substantiates the hypocrisy argument, although one has to understand the intent of each college's SFH rules and the motives of those who choose to live there (and perhaps the outlook of those who have been quartered there as a matter of random placement).

If you're into highly quantified reasoning about SFH, then you may care to check out the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, funded by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Harvard Gazette references that and attests to the positive aspect of SFH when it notes:

Residents of college housing where alcohol and smoking were banned were less likely to be victims of actions by students who were drinking. Findings from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study show that substance-free college residence halls are making an impact in the effort to reduce the harms that heavy drinking produces among college students. This was the first study to take a national look at the relationship between substance-free dorms and the effects of alcohol on college campuses. …

Do SFH residents have to make a pledge that they will abide by the rules of their college's SFH charter? Here's an example of how Davidson College handles the SFH “contract" [see my bold emphasis]:

Davidson College offers substance-free housing for those students who wish to minimize their exposure in their living environment to alcohol and alcohol-related behavior, illicit drugs, and smoking materials. Students living in these communities agree to not use alcohol or drugs on their floor community, nor bring the effects of those substances back into the hall.

For 2015-16, RLO [Residence Life Office] has designated 1st Cannon, 1st South, and 2nd South as substance-free communities. 1st Cannon and half of 2nd South are designated for female students (for a total of 38 beds) and 1st South and half of 2nd South are designated for male students (for a total of 27 beds). Only sophomores are eligible to live on 1st and 2nd South.

There is no separate application process for substance-free housing. Room selection will occur at the same time as the room type being selected (e.g., a double room on 1st Cannon would be selected on Suites/Double Room Selection night). Any student will be allowed to choose those floors when their lottery number permits.

All students choosing a substance free assignment will be required to complete a substance free housing contract; failure to uphold the expectations will likely result in relocation to another assignment.


So, when you're considering your college housing options, it may pay to check out how (or if) substance-free housing would fit into your plans. All the information you need to make a decision about that is available on your colleges' housing Web pages. Check it out.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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