Dormitories Seen as Retention Tools at Urban, Commuter Schools

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by Lekan Oguntoyinbo

Rutgers University freshman Steven Johnson grew up only a few minutes from the Newark, N.J., campus where he now studies and lives. But for him, his old neighborhood and the campus are worlds apart. Drug dealers monopolized the street corners in his neighborhood, he says. Gunfire was normal; homicides not unheard of. Johnson lives in a university residence hall courtesy of a university scholarship valued at nearly $11,000. He finds time to balance his studies while participating in school activities and expects to earn a B average in his first semester. If it wasn’t for the opportunity to live on campus, he says, college would be a bust.

“When I was going into college I didn’t get a penny from my parents. But living on campus was what I wanted to do,” says Johnson, 18. “Living here on campus has been one of my best experiences ever. I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have happened if I lived at home. I don’t believe it would have worked out.”

Many urban and commuter universities have their sights set on students like Johnson—young, vulnerable first-generation students unlikely to connect with the college and likely to fail unless the right strategies are put in place to help them graduate. These schools are using residence halls as a means of retaining students who may be underprepared and overwhelmed by college, getting them more engaged with the university and boosting academic performance.

For much of the past 10 or 15 years, many universities have jumped into the residence hall business or expanded their residential offerings. Queens College in Queens, N.Y., opened its first residence hall in the fall of 2009. Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis has been steadily expanding its residential offerings and hopes to double the number of on-campus students over the next several years.

Youngstown State University, another historically commuter campus about 40 minutes from Cleveland, is following the same track. Portland State University, in Oregon, currently has about 2,000 students living on campus and plans to add another 1,000 beds by 2012. Arizona State University recently added 1,800 beds to its downtown Phoenix campus. And the University of Missouri-Kansas City has added 1,350 beds since the fall of 2003, according to the Journal of College and University Housing.

“As part of Queens College’s master plan, we felt it would be important to offer an on-campus living option for our students,” says Dr. Adam L. Rockman, the acting vice president of student affairs at the institution, which serves 20,000 commuter students and 500 on-campus students. “Research has shown that students who live on campus tend to have higher grade point averages and graduate sooner than those who do not live on campus. Furthermore, students who live on campus report that they have a better overall college experience.”

Eliminating Distractions

It may be too early to suggest there is a building boom underway, but industry experts say there is clearly an uptick in the construction of residence halls at universities around the country, particular among the urban and commuter schools.

“We have seen more [request for proposals] for residence halls in the last 12 months than we have seen in a long time,” says Alton Irwin, executive vice president of Capstone Development, a Birmingham, Ala., firm that focuses on the development, management and construction of student housing. “We are seeing more and more universities signing on to the fact that housing is a critical part of enrollment management. More universities are seeing that student housing can not only be a recruitment tool but retention tool.”

Universities are padding these residence halls with a wide variety of social and academic programs designed to engage students and help facilitate their transition into college life. Some schools have residence hall programs that cater to first-generation college students. Some, such as the University of Illinois-Chicago, developed programs aimed at racial and ethnic minorities. The objective of most of these programs is clear: steer more students toward the dormitories and watch their academic performance soar.

While room and board may bring in additional revenue for the schools, college and university officials are adamant that they are focused on the bigger picture: increased graduation rates and stronger alumni ties.

Dr. Steven J. Diner, chancellor of Rutgers University’s Newark campus, has raised $600,000 to provide scholarships for students like Johnson to live on campus.

Research showing that students who live in residence halls graduate at a higher rate than those who don’t bolster his fundraising pitch. A study by the University of Missouri-Kansas City showed that 95.7 percent of first-semester students who lived on campus returned to the university the following semester. In contrast, 83 percent of the commuter students came back for their second semester.

“The Newark campus has the largest proportion of students (in the Rutgers system) who receive Pell grants,” Diner says. “Thirty-eight percent of our students qualify. That has been one of my arguments to expand our residency. Many of our Newark students who live at home have all kinds of demands on their time: ‘Take your sister to the doctor. Babysit. Grocery shop.’ Many come from large families. There’s a lot of pressure on everybody in the family.”

Tamara Trotz, a fourth-year student from nearby East Orange, N.J., is in many ways representative of the students Diner is speaking of. The eldest daughter of a single mother with stage five cervical cancer, Trotz found herself in the position of being her mother’s primary caregiver while also taking care of her two younger sisters.

“Living [on campus] has given me the opportunity to do more of what I need to do,” says Trotz, who is majoring in finance and public administration. “Since I moved on campus the level of difficulty of my studies has increased. At home my attention would have been elsewhere. I’m doing better than I would have done at home. I have fewer domestic chores and fewer responsibilities regarding my sisters and my mother.”

With one of her sisters now, at age 19, able to take on more responsibility, Trotz says she can focus on her studies while monitoring the family via regular phone calls and weekend visits.

Critical Support

To be sure, higher education experts point out that merely adding beds or building dormitories is not enough to engage students or steer them on the path. In 2008, University of Cincinnati officials opened a new residence hall aimed specifically at first-generation, Pell-eligible students. The hall, known simply as the Gen-1 Theme House, has fewer than 30 students, most of whom are freshmen and sophomores. Gen-1 residents are subject to several unique rules, including curfew.

“For the first couple of weekends we recommend they stay in the house rather than go home,” says Dr. Stephanie Cappel, creator and development director of Partner for Achieving School Success, the campus program that devised the project.

As part of the program, Gen-1 residents meet regularly with the residence hall coordinator for “success conferences,” sessions in which they are taught strategies for succeeding at a large school like UC. During their first year, Gen-1 students also take for-credit courses that introduce them to individuals who provide support, tutoring and tips for success.

“I’m first generation also,” says Cappel. “I remember not knowing so much, where to start, what classes to take. Students don’t know what questions to ask. Even though there are so many programs available—tutoring, financial aid, ethnic programs and cultural support—many students don’t know they’re there, and don’t know to ask if they’re there. If you don’t know, you’re just wandering around and feeling hopeless. That contributes to a sense of not being able to accomplish academically.”

Cappel says the data show the program is working well. All 24 of the Gen-1 residents who started school in the 2009-2010 academic year remained enrolled throughout the academic year. Collectively, they compiled a House average GPA of 2.771 for the year. All but one of those students has returned to UC for their second year.

The University of Illinois-Chicago, like a growing number of other schools, has taken a slightly different approach, gearing residence halls toward specific academic interests. Among the options: a hall for honors students, halls for women in science and engineering and specific buildings and floors for students interested in entrepreneurship, accounting and business. The university also offers a faculty-in-residence program, in which faculty members live in the residence halls alongside the students. The faculty members regularly host programs aimed at stimulating interest in the students’ areas of study outside the classroom.

“It is the goal of the university to be more residential,” says Susan Teggatz, UIC’s director of campus housing.

The college’s office of residence life also has a program targeted at minority students. Pathways to Black Male Achievement, a program specifically aimed at African-American males, links them up with mentors, teaches them how to stay focused and seeks to engage them through social activities and readings, says Teggatz.

“There is a lot of attention at our university to Black males,” she says. “The university has resourced this population so they have access to university housing. This has increased their retention rate.”

Many urban universities like UIC and Rutgers are hoping their housing efforts produce the kinds of results and testimonials like this one from Johnson.

“This has been one of the best experiences I have ever had,” he says. “I have struggled with math my entire life. But since I’ve been here I’ve worked on math and anything I need to study. Every time they put a math test in front of me I feel confident. Since I’ve been (living) on campus, I can study without someone yelling or calling my name.”

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