Innovations in Residence-Life Programming

When it comes to on-campus housing, colleges are finding that they must offer much more than just shelter to attract students.

When it comes to on-campus housing, colleges are finding that they must offer much more than just shelter to attract students.

Recently, AS&U editor, Joe Agron, moderated a symposium for broadcast focusing on residence-life strategies. Held at the University of South Florida--which is in the early stages of a major housing-construction project--the event brought together leading experts in the residence-life field. What follows is a capsule of some of the important issues discussed during the two-hour taped event.

 

Our panel of experts: William Zeller, director of university housing, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Terry Sichta, director of housing, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta; Jane Wright, AIA, residence life specialist, Hanbury Evans Newill Vlattas (HENV) Architects, Norfolk, VA; William Bayless, executive vice president and COO, American Campus Lifestyles, Austin, TX; Carole Henry, director of housing and residence life, West Virginia University, Morgantown; and Jeanne Steffes, coordinator of the academic environments program, University of Maryland at College Park. The event was hosted by the University of South Florida and HENV Architects.

The residence-life-symposium participants benefitted from being able to tour the University of South Florida (USF), Tampa campus and share in the institution's plans for a major housing revitalization. Following is background on USF and its planned construction program: -FTE Enrollment: 36,000 students total; 19,000 students on the Tampa campus. -National ranking: 15th largest university. -Number of on-campus students: more than 2,300 students. -Number of existing residence halls: 12. -Construction plans: USF is embarking on a plan over the next 15 to 20 years that will both create new housing opportunities for the demands of contemporary students and redefine the existing traditional housing stock. This plan includes new construction to create an additional 2,500 beds. Approximately 2,076 existing beds will be renovated. The goal is to enhance the sense of community, increase privacy and create an academic living/learning environment responsive to the non-traditional student body.

AS&U: How do university housing systems make sure future years' applicant pools know of the on-campus-residence value?

Sichta: The first thing I'd say is to give people an opportunity to live on-campus in the very best, highest-quality housing that is affordable. The second thing has to do with programs--How are you going to support the educational mission of the institution? What are the goals of the institution and for the program?

Another thing I think is very important is considering the customer as an adult. We often think we are housing college students in residence halls when we should be thinking we are housing single, young adults in market-rate facilities. And when you begin to ask how you treat this type of customer, your answers generally are different. We're creating environments where students can be excited about living. Often, [residence halls] tend to be somewhat restrained and boring.

Henry: If the residence-life experience becomes the core of the foundation to the student-life experience, and has connections to the academic realm, then that will create some of the excitement that would draw students to campus.

Zeller: I think it's very important for an institution to bring 24-hour life to the campus. Not only should it be a stated goal, but also it should be defined as to what [24-hour life] means and what are the characteristics. Is it increased social activities? Is it increased interaction between students, or between students and faculty?

AS&U: What are some turnaround tactics and resources for a university housing system that is in financial trouble, has a poor image or has declining student interest?

Henry: One of the things that should be done is improve the facility--better furnishings, carpeting, add more color, a sense of warmth. In addition, it's very important to add various community living spaces to enhance the facility overall.

Computer labs and data connections in student rooms would really enhance the academic program of the institution. So much of our residence-hall operations have been purely auxiliary, and their mission was secondary to education. We are now beginning to realize how important residence halls are to the retention [of students] to the institution. The attractiveness of campus life is a very important recruiting tactic.

Sichta: You have to have a vision that people can buy in to and that you can articulate regularly. In addition, make sure you are getting the biggest bang for the buck. Very often, we tend to run our businesses as though they are mom-and-pop shops. This is big business and there's substantial money to be spent and made.

AS&U: What are your feelings on public/private participation in the campus environment, and how does a university resolve the public/private motivations for student development vs. return on investment?

Bayless: Some of the advantages the private sector can bring to the table are the ability to free up capital for the university and bring economies of scale. For the most part, the private sector can develop a project in a shorter time--there is more flexibility with building specifications, and the private sector often has lower development costs.

The real differentiation that we would urge as universities, such as USF, move forward with a construction project is not to build a 50-year facility when the reality is the product we design today will probably have a 20-year life from a consumer perspective. Instead, build a 20-year facility, which can be done at a lower cost and that can be financially self-sustaining. When the facility has lived out its useful life after 20 years, build a new one that is consumer-oriented for the student of that day.

Zeller: I think there are opportunities for entrepreneurial endeavors to occur with the private sector, but I also think that there are opportunities for entrepreneurial funding connections to be made with campus-based constituencies.

There are different funding sources to seek, along with the private sector, to achieve your goals. The mind-set of simply relying on traditional auxiliary-bonded financing packages is not going to cut it if we want to achieve higher-end goals.

AS&U: What are the unique attributes that attract students to on-campus housing, and what new concepts do you see emerging in special marketing efforts or programs?

Steffes: I think there are a number of very positive attributes for on-campus housing. Often, there is a great separation between the academic and the social life on campus. Residence-hall systems have a unique opportunity to merge the academic and social aspects of learning--to create a seamless learning environment that all can participate in.

Research has shown that living in residence halls enhances a student's life on campus. [Residence hall residents] typically have higher GPAs, retain their grades longer, take more credit hours and have a better opportunity to form connections with faculty members on campus. They also have an opportunity to be more involved in leadership opportunities on campus.

In regards to marketing, we need to take a look at what our business and corporate world are doing. What types of things are they looking at for brand loyalty? If we can't respond to them [students] in a high-tech, high-response, telecommunications era, we might miss an opportunity [to attract students to on-campus housing].

AS&U: With more nontraditional and older students, and the overwhelming desire of many students for more privacy, do double-occupancy rooms have a place in tomorrow's residence-hall marketing scheme?

Sichta: Absolutely not. I consider [double-occupancy rooms] a tremendous liability that's to be overcome by creative programming. No one comes from those environments anymore, and they won't go into that environment once they leave the university.

Henry: I think that for first-year students [double-occupancy rooms] can be appropriate, and they can be fun and exciting, as well as maximize the learning experience. I don't necessarily think that just because a university housing program has double-loaded corridors and double-occupancy rooms that it has no ability to make that attractive in marketing and recruitment.

Steffes: I agree that living in [double-occupancy rooms] as a freshman is very positive. That type of environment gives students a great opportunity for learning on many different levels and allows them to meet people from different backgrounds.

Bayless: I would greatly discourage any institution from building new double-bedroom accommodations. What you are going to see from the private sector in the future is student housing built all around your campuses. Would the private sector ever build a double-bedroom off campus? Never. The private bedroom would be the first, most important attribute they [the private sector] would build into their product, and, therefore, you should.

Wright: There are all kinds of issues that are associated with double-occupancy rooms. When you are talking about renovating current housing stock to transform a double-occupancy room into a single-occupancy room, you will have an incredible impact on the square feet per student as well as the cost of the renovation. There are all kinds of factors that need to be looked at.

Relative to new construction, I think there are ways to manipulate the space to create some privacy opportunities, to gain affordability and the ability to construct good first- and second-year student-housing models. But there are benefits to double-occupancy rooms, especially in regards to developing a sense of community. Community has been developed from the adjacency of openings into the room, not necessarily from the fact that two people shared a room.

Zeller: I think that a double-occupancy room is an option that can be attractive for those traditional-aged, first-year students coming to our campuses. Programmatically and in terms of support systems, we can do an awful lot to make that experience attractive and educational.

We hear over and over again from end-of-year satisfaction surveys from first-year students that 'although it wasn't easy, some of the best learning and educational opportunities were from struggling through issues both with my roommate and with the people in my community.' It's up to us to articulate that successfully--that this is what we're going to be working with our students to achieve. Then after the first year, we need to do everything we can to provide another option. I think as much as we can, try to provide the single-room opportunity for sophomores, juniors and seniors to encourage them to stay on campus. [Universities] should design [housing systems] with intention, not as a reaction to market issues.

AS&U: What visions do you have for the future of college and university housing?

Sichta: Tomorrow's housing must include programs that are wrapped tightly in partnering efforts with academics on campus, and that are results-oriented and help students achieve success. I see an opportunity for distance learning that perhaps will reduce the inventory of housing, but will increase the quality of that housing.

Steffes: Students coming to college have certain expectations, and most universities can meet more student needs if they [students] are on-campus residents--support services are more accessible, and there are greater opportunities for growth and understanding.

Zeller: We talk about building residence halls that will last 20 or 30 years, but we have to recognize that the use of those facilities will more than likely be different than what we're building them for right now. We have to acknowledge that the service population may shift in the future, and build facilities as adaptable as possible.

Wright: The future from the design side of housing will deal with the accommodation of privacy without having to sacrifice the opportunities for collegial living.

Bayless: I think you are going to see more privatization and a shift in philosophies on campus. There just aren't funds available to build housing, and so privatization will occur in these instances out of financial constraints. What will happen on college campuses as the private sector becomes more involved is there's going to be a swing in the rationale that we are providing a consumer service to our students.

Zeller: It is important to view students as customers and that we do everything we can to ensure that what we're providing is of the highest level of service and quality. But we also have to admit that [students] are customers in another way, and that is to receive the best possible education they can. [A university] must use all of its resources to help students achieve these goals, and will be missing tremendous opportunities if it relies strictly on classroom instruction to provide education to students.

 

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