Study shows how different types of college dormitories can affect grades

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Colleges have attempted to woo prospective students in recent years with slick residence halls that are far cry from the minimalist construction styles of the past. And while studies have focused on how living on campus versus off campus can affect students’ attitudes and academic performance, little research has been conducted on how the actual architecture of a building can influence those same factors.

A group of researchers that attempted to determine the relationship between student housing and grades outlined their findings in a new study published this month in the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice.

The authors note that some parents believe that apartment-style living spaces — as opposed to the more traditional rooms lined down a single corridor — will benefit their children. But many students find the apartments make them lonely, despite giving them more privacy and space, the researchers wrote.

The researchers set out to figure out whether students who lived in traditional campus housing had better grade point averages and a sense of belonging compared to those in apartments. The researchers also wanted to know whether black students who lived in a typical dormitory would have more academic success than those who did not.

The researchers examined data over four years from an anonymous private liberal arts institution in the South. The authors selected this university because it recently had undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation of its residence halls, prioritizing new apartments. Before that expansion, 29 of the 33 residence halls on campus were the traditional corridor design. The buildings each housed approximately 70 residents and had three people per bedroom and two communal bathrooms per floor.

The college built 30 new “luxury” residence halls with individual bathrooms, washers and dryers, full kitchens, and furnished living rooms that the researchers described as “isolating.”

Because the college requires students to live on campus for their first two years, the residence halls influenced the undergraduates’ experience early on.

Over the four years, the researchers studied 5,537 first-year students, about 800 of whom were black. The black first-year students who lived in the corridor-style dormitories — those with more opportunities to socialize among similar peers — ended up having higher GPAs than those who were housed in the apartments, with an average 2.3 GPA compared to a 1.9.

The differences were less pronounced among white students, but those who lived in the traditional residence halls had higher GPAs — an average 2.9 versus 2.8 for the apartment dwellers.

Carla Yanni, a professor of art history at Rutgers University who has studied the history of dormitories and is the author of Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory (University of Minnesota Press), described the findings as “fascinating.”

“The study’s outcomes may surprise families and students who assume that a quiet apartment will lead to better first-semester grades,” she said.

Josh Brown, the lead author of the study and an instructor of leadership, foundations and policy at the University of Virginia, said administrators should consider how they invest in student housing and the types of residence halls in which they are investing. Even though the college might benefit from better aesthetics, “there is a social cost” to these buildings, he said.

Student affairs officials should also consider how to adjust programs that help new students based on where they live, Brown said. For instance, lessons about alcohol could focus on the negatives of binge drinking for the students who live in traditional residence halls, while those in apartments could learn about the drawbacks of drinking in solitude.

Brown noted that the findings may only apply to first- or second-year students who are trying to adjust to college life and build their social circles. Seniors might benefit from having more privacy as they prepare to enter the work force and deal with other stressors late in college.

“How an organization chooses to use and employ architecture for these facilities also has implications for … the academic outcomes of those students,” Brown said.

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