The value of living on campus
For Javier Gutierrez, director of residential life at Hamline University, there are many student stories that affirm the value of living on campus. Often, he finds, it is the intangible aspects of residential life that make all the difference in a student's experience. He recalls one student who spent his freshman year living in the dorm and was excited to have an off-campus apartment sophomore year. Not far into the semester, the student came to his office and wanted to move back into campus housing. He missed the academic environment and the convenience of being on campus.
The student moved back in, got a job as the assistant coordinator of his residence hall and realized that living on campus was the best choice for him, Gutierrez said.
Indeed, while much is made of the importance of the residential life experience for first-year students — some institutions require students to live on campus, while others recommend it — the benefits of doing so can be hard to quantify or explain. As liberal arts institutions with small student bodies, many of Minnesota's Private Colleges have a strong tradition of undergraduates living on campus. But besides tradition, what makes living on campus a good idea?
"It's definitely a question we talk about a lot," said Brendan Dolan, assistant director of residential life at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota. "For us, it's about creating community, which is tied to our mission as one of the three tenets of the Christian Brothers (the group that founded Saint Mary's). We believe community is essential to the success of a student."
Dolan points to students having a built-in support network, easy access to campus resources and to an environment that is conducive to building lasting relationships as benefits of living on campus. It also helps with retention and contributes to higher graduation rates, he said. "The experience acts as an anchor and makes students want to stay at the university. The experience of living with so many people means they are having conversations with students in their major so they are more informed academically, too," Dolan said.
On campus by choice
While living on campus isn't required for all four years at Saint Mary's, almost all first-year students live on campus and a majority of students live on campus all four years, Dolan said.
At Hamline University, approximately 80 percent of first-year students live on campus, with almost all international and out-of-state students choosing to do so. "We encourage it, but it isn't required," said Gutierrez. Like Dolan, he believes that residential life is positive for students because of the social and community aspects, but notes that there are additional safety and security benefits and a strong "convenience factor" that helps students make good use of their time.
"Yes, you might be able to find cheaper rent off campus, but that doesn't include a lot of the extra costs of living on your own. Being on campus means having everything available when you need it — you can stay and work on assignments as late as you want and have an on-campus job as well," Gutierrez said.
On the academic end, he notes that there are studies comparing the grade point averages of students living on campus to those living off campus; the students living on campus tend to have slightly higher averages, he said. He attributes this to increased access to academic resources and to peer study groups in residence halls.
Better than your brother's dorm room
While the basics of living on campus are essentially the same, some aspects of residential life have changed for the better in recent years. Dorms and residence halls for first-year students still typically offer tight quarters and the challenges of living with a roommate, but now they offer up-to-date technology, entertainment options and other conveniences as well.
At the University of St. Thomas, where about 90 percent of first-year students live on campus, students have wireless internet and cable television in their rooms, said Mary Ann Ryan, executive director of campus and residence life. They also have access to free laundry facilities.
The last decade has brought increased emphasis on having places to hang out in residence halls as well as a need for more single rooms with individual bathrooms, Gutierrez said. And while some of the dorms at Hamline are older, more attention is paid to residence hall aesthetics than might have been in the past, with newer carpet, comfortable furniture and updated technology. "We do what we can to make it visually appealing," Gutierrez said.
Many campuses, St. Thomas included, have added apartment and townhome-style living options for upperclassmen as demand has increased for this type of campus housing, Ryan said.
Some institutions have made changes to residence hall programming in recent years, too. Rather than simply organizing a movie night or party, Dolan said halls programming is shifting toward a more educational focus. This means planning social justice, financial awareness and diversity-related events that are both fun and intentional. "We try to push ourselves so that students get more out of events than just the social aspect. We want to have more development opportunities for students and to connect them to other organizations," he said.
Students' response to these new types of events has been positive, he said. "We've had no problems with attendance," Dolan said.
Creating intentional communities
In addition to creating a welcoming community atmosphere for a campus as a whole, many of Minnesota's Private Colleges also foster living communities for students who want a specific kind of residence hall experience. This means a floor (or an entire house) might have a theme or cater to a certain type of student.
Hamline, for example, has a Hmong student house, in addition to an "advocacy and action" floor, a quiet lifestyle floor and a substance-free floor for students recovering from addiction issues. St. Thomas has floors devoted to the sophomore-year experience, Catholic men's and women's communities and wellness floors.
While such floors aren't a new idea, they help the residence hall experience meet the needs of specific students and groups, said Michael Grewe, assistant director of campus activities and orientation and coordinator of LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex and Asexual) services at Augsburg College. "It's great to be on campus, but when you have a group of people who are intentionally supportive of who you are, it's an even better experience."
Augsburg has many intentional communities, including the "everybody loves everybody" floor, which is an LGBTQIA themed floor. The idea began in the fall of 2010, with a few students wanting to create such a space. Their efforts were so successful that this year there are three "everybody loves everybody" floors with a total of 72 students living on them. The majority of these students don't identify as LGBT, but consider themselves allies, Grewe said.
Grewe said that the "everybody loves everybody" floors are important for several reasons. "LGBT students are a group that can feel marginalized in student housing — they might not feel safe, or there might be conflicts with roommates. Some LGBT-identified students end up feeling that there is no point in living on campus, though there are benefits to doing so," he said. The response to the floor has been positive, with staff, students and faculty telling Grewe that they are proud to have such a community at Augsburg.
And what students at Minnesota's Private Colleges themselves say about living on campus is perhaps the best indicator of how valuable it can be. At St. Thomas, Ryan said she often hears feedback from students about their residential experience. "The students give us lots of positive reinforcement about the sense of community they feel here. We have a wonderful staff, and we're really proud of the satisfaction students feel when they choose to live on campus."