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  • Writer's pictureBridget Williams Golden

The Evolution of Campus Housing

Warren and Moore Residential Colleges at Vanderbilt University (photo credit: Nick Wiedemann)

Thom is spending a few days this week as a parent chaperone with one of our sons at Boy Scout Camp. He is sleeping in a tent. So while he is camping, you get my thoughts this week!

When asked about camping, my usual answer is, “I don’t like to go anywhere that the bed isn’t as good or better than the one I left. It was tough even going to college.”

So let’s talk about what it’s like to go to college….and how things have changed.

During colonial times, higher education’s primary role was educating white men of means. As the aims of education and access to higher education grew, the college environment and housing has greatly evolved. The GI Bill was signed into law on June 22, 1944, as the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was quickly referred to as the “GI Bill,” as it offered federal aid to help veterans pursue an education as well as buy homes and gain employment. No longer for only the wealthy, higher education became an attainable opportunity for millions. Professor John Thelin, author of A History of American Higher Education, writes that the GI Bill was“ an unexpected success, enrolling just under 8 million veterans — 10 times the number the authors of the bill had predicted.”

With that encouragement, enrollment in colleges and universities boomed, well beyond anticipated and available student housing. For example, at Purdue University in 1946 “Enrollment nearly tripled, and facilities, many of which had been minimally repaired and maintained during war years, were unprepared for this dramatic growth. Temporary housing erected on campus helped alleviate housing problems, to some degree. According to the 1947 Debris yearbook, students lived in attics and basements of some buildings, and faculty stayed in rooms in the Union, while some fraternities ‘acquired Quonset huts to take care of their returned G.I.’s’.”

As campuses continued to boom, residence halls continued to grow and evolve. (If you ever want to see a student affairs professional, especially one who works with residence life, cringe -- use the word “dormitory.” Residence halls refer to vibrant communities where students live, study, sleep, and engage with others. The word “dorm” comes from the Latin word dormitus which means literally “to sleep.” And modern residence halls provide much more than a place to sleep.)

Many tower designs for residence halls were constructed across the country in the 1960s to create more spaces for students to live. If space is a premium, we’ll just build taller! Architecture and design have changed; many of these tower-style halls were initially designed to have four students in a room or suite and now only house two students. (Students were packed in residence halls like sardines at some schools in the 1960s to 1980s, often due to growth.)

During the mid to late 1980s, colleges began to compete more for students; where and how students would live became a consideration with recruitment. In addition to recruiting students, thinking about how students learn and engage began to be considered by campus design and residence hall structure. Retention showed that students who lived in campus residence halls were more likely to stay in school. (Maslow’s hierarchy at its best - if you’re safe, secure, and have a meal plan, you can study!)

I started my freshman year at Purdue University in August 1994. I lived on the first floor of Shreve Hall, which opened in 1970. There was no air-conditioning in our 11’ x 16’ room. I brought a 13 '' TV with a built-in VHS player. My roommate provided a small fridge. I had a word processor. My roommate brought a new computer that was running a brand new Windows 95! She was one of two people on our entire floor of 50 women who had her own computer. I brought a cordless phone that had an answering machine combo. We had lofted beds (never again do I want to climb a ladder to get into a bed and sleep with my head inches from a ceiling); I’m still not sure how I never fell to my death. We had a futon, matching comforters, and even a small remnant carpet for that homey feel! We shared a bathroom with 50 other women on our floor.

There was a dining hall in our residence hall, computer lab, meeting spaces, and a formal lobby. There was a newer suite style, air conditioned residence hall across the street, but we were happy in our little sweatbox. We heard that students in the new residence hall kept their doors shut there; we liked the open doors of our floor and chatting with people. It was a great experience in community living. Following my first year, I lived in a sorority house for the next three years. Our sorority house could house 102 women and had an elevator (but no air conditioning at the time!), meals, and other amenities. I loved being in an active sorority community with other student leaders but I also know that I wouldn’t have survived on my own in an apartment. (Cooking? Nope.)

Some colleges and universities require students to live on campus, either for their freshman year or even all four years. These policies vary and some institutions even require students to live on campus all four years.

Before you think, what? Require me to live on campus?

Let’s look at some of the features and amenities in most modern residence halls:

  • Air-conditioning

  • Safety protocols including card access for entry and camera surveillance of exterior doors

  • Cable

  • Wireless internet connection

  • Custodial services for common areas

  • Meal plans

As residence halls have improved, so have off-campus apartments. Many even try to present themselves as “campus housing.” For example, Calloway House at the University of Texas - Austin promotes itself as the “premier full-service freshman private UT dorm.”

I’m very skeptical of these private companies presenting themselves as campus housing. They are new, flashy, and nice, but are managed in a more commercial, for-profit structure. Student development isn’t at the forefront of their mission. I know full-time residence hall professionals who have dedicated their lives to intentionally serving students. Most, if not all, have master’s degrees in student affairs, counseling, or other related field. If my son needed help on campus, I would want them to be the first people he would reach out to, rather than someone who may know more about marketing.

In addition, part of the beauty of living on campus is meeting people who aren’t just like you. These off-campus luxury apartments are much pricier than living on campus, with less direct college support. But these country club style apartments also further the divide between “haves” and “have nots.” They have also been the subject of scrutiny for providing “community assistants” reduced rent in order to work in the complex - for no pay violating overtime and minimum wage laws.

So make sure you visit residence halls when you do a campus tour. Ask about upperclassmen living on campus and what the policies are. Be an informed consumer and try not to say, “Back in my day…” when you’re on the tour with your child.

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