Traditional student housing may be less profitable but it’s better for GPAs

Universities should offer residence halls that support students’ socialising rather than expensive luxury-style apartments, argue Fred Volk and Joshua Brown 

October 5, 2019
student accommodation

One way that universities have been increasing their recruitment appeal is by offering luxury student housing that includes high-end design elements desired by students. Historically, these design elements that emphasise the latest in residential amenities and increased privacy have not been included as part of the university residence hall experience. While luxury student housing may entice a student to enroll in a given institution over another, the design elements may undermine academic performance and potentially exacerbate class and race differences for student populations as our new study suggests.

Luxury residence halls have become a strategic part of the multi-faceted revenue plan for many universities. The construction of these high-end residence halls has been typically funded through loans or university-corporate partnerships. Such partnerships require the university to maintain specific student enrolments to ensure occupancy while the corporate partner funds, constructs and sometimes manages the facility. Once completed, the university can up-charge for the luxury student housing to generate additional revenues for the institution.

Presumably, these amenities will also attract a more affluent set of students who can pay the full tuition rate rather than discounted tuition rate subsidised by the university. This revenue generation model can stratify students by class and race by funnelling less affluent students into less expensive housing.

At best, this model directly discourages the development of inter-class and inter-racial relationships. At worst, this model could impact campus tension between groups based on class and race by promoting disparate housing experiences. The residence hall design can make a difference in the success of students.

Our research examined whether residence hall design is associated with student academic success. We compared two architectural designs: a luxury-style apartment design that provided privacy and added amenities for the students; and a traditional double-corridor design with shared bathrooms at the ends.

We believed the design of the luxury-apartment style emphasised privacy and was more isolating, whereas the design of the traditional corridor emphasised community and allowed for more socialising among students.

The study was based on archival records, and thus correlational in nature. An effort was made to control for specialised residence halls (e.g. for student athletes) and competing functions of ethnicity (e.g. international students). Unfortunately, records were unavailable to assess student engagement in campus activities.

The results of our study showed that all students who lived in the traditional, more socialising residence halls had higher first semester grade point averages. These results appear contrary to consumer demands that emphasise preferences for privacy and luxury, but they complement prior research that examines student academic success and a sense of belonging.

Our study also showed that underrepresented minority students who lived with students of similar ethnicity in the traditional, more socialising residence halls had higher first semester GPAs.

In contrast, the minority students who lived in the higher priced, luxury residence halls performed more poorly than those in the traditional architecture.

For minority students enrolled at predominately white institutions, such as the one we studied, first-semester academic success is an important factor in facilitating their persistence and, ultimately, graduation.

The luxury residence halls we examined likely limited student interaction through their design elements that emphasised high levels of privacy. The isolating nature of the luxury architecture may have limited minority students from engaging with other ethnic students “like themselves”.

Inversely, the luxury design also potentially limited the predominantly white population of students from engaging with the minority students “different from themselves”. As prior studies have shown, limited engagement within and across races leads to a less rich educational experience for all.

Although not causal, the results from this research underscore that the university housing environment likely plays an important role in student success and should not be overlooked by students, parents, and administrators.

We caution university leaders from pursuing market-driven approaches when it comes to student housing, given that consumer preferences change and an institution could find its features out of fashion very quickly. Moreover, partnerships with outside business entities should be undertaken with caution because corporate missions differ from university missions. The aim of a university is to transform students through education, while the aim of a business is to maximise profit. Poorly planned partnerships can undermine the goals of both entities.  

We also urge university leaders to emphasise the transformative focus of their educational mission. Luxury dorms, climbing walls and other non-academic features are a logical result of a transactional rather than a transformative view of a college education.

The transactional approach reinforces market competition where customers are more likely to compare universities based on features and costs related to the purchase decision. Unfortunately, there will always be another college or university that delivers more features, in a better location and at a lower cost.

Unless institutions educate prospective students and parents about the value of an on-campus transformational experience – and objectively provide that experience for students – university leaders will continue to inadvertently invest in short-term solutions that may negatively impact the very people they are trying to assist.

Fred Volk is a professor in and associate chair of Liberty University’s psychology department.

Joshua T. Brown is an instructor of leadership, foundations, and policy at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

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