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Net Benefits of Recovery High Schools: Higher Cost but Increased Sobriety and Educational Attainment.

BACKGROUND: Recovery high schools (RHS) provide a supportive educational and therapeutic environment for students subsequent to treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs). Most students served by RHSs have concurrent mental health disorders and are at risk for school failure or dropout and substance use relapse.

AIMS OF THE STUDY: The central question addressed is whether RHSs are economically efficient alternatives to other high school settings for students in recovery. The aim is to estimate the incremental cost-benefit of RHSs.

METHODS: A quasi-experimental non-equivalent pretest-posttest comparison group design was used. We compared substance use and educational outcomes for adolescents who had received specialty SUD treatment; 143 who enrolled in an RHS were compared to 117 who enrolled in a non-RHS school. Groups were balanced by use of a propensity score to drop students who were not similar to those in the other group. The propensity score was also used as a covariate in multiple regression to estimate cost and outcome parameters and standard errors. To take account of uncertainties in impacts and shadow prices, we used Monte Carlo simulations to estimate the distribution of incremental benefits of RHS relative to non-RHS schooling.

RESULTS: Two beneficial impacts of statistical and substantive importance were identified: increased probability of high school graduation and increased sobriety. RHS students had significantly (p<.05) less substance use during the study period -- at 12-month follow-up, 55% of RHS and 26% of comparison students reported 3 month abstinence from alcohol and drugs. Urinalysis confirmed abstinence from THC (cannabis) for 68% of RHS versus 37% of comparison students. RHS students' high school graduation rates were 21 to 25 percentage points higher than comparison students. Adopting a societal perspective, incremental benefits of RHSs were estimated by monetizing the increased probability of high school graduation and comparing it to incremental costs. Mean net benefits ranged from USD16.1 thousand to USD51.9 thousand per participant; benefit-to-cost ratios ranged from 3.0 to 7.2.

DISCUSSION: Monetizing the benefits and the incremental costs of RHS relative to conventional schooling show substantial positive net benefits from RHS participation. Two factors lend credibility to the results. First, the RHS improvement in substance use indicates a mechanism through which the increased probability of high school graduation can plausibly occur. Second, the estimated increases in the probability of high school graduation were large and statistically significant. As the productivity gains from high school graduation are also large, the dominant benefit category is very plausible. Limitations include the non-randomized design; selection bias into the study conditions not fully controlled by the propensity scores; generalizability only to young people with treated behavioral health disorders; lack of estimates for direct monetization of reduced substance use among adolescents; possible attenuation of the value of education among individuals with behavioral health issues; and uncertainty in calculation of school costs.

IMPLICATIONS FOR BEHAVIORAL HEALTH POLICIES: This research provides evidence that the recovery high school model provides cost beneficial support for high school students after primary SUD treatment. The students who enroll in RHSs typically have co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders, adding complexity to their continuing care. Funding policies recognizing the multiple systems of care (behavioral health, education, child and family services, juvenile justice) responsible for these young people are called for.

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