From Where You Sit

June 1, 2001
The furniture you should have in a residence hall depends on the space available, the function it serves, and the students who live there.

There was a time at many colleges and universities when a student felt lucky just to have a bed in a crowded residence-hall room.

Now schools must compete more aggressively for students, and students are demanding something more than a barebones residence-hall room with a desk, dresser and bed. They want comfort provided in their rooms, and in the lounges and common areas where they will spend much of their time.

Many schools emphasize flexible furniture to give students the option to rearrange their rooms — and lounges — to suit their personal tastes. At other schools, the flexibility is limited by the small space available in individual rooms. Different kinds of spaces require different kinds of furnishings. A cramped room shared among two or three students will have a different setup than a more communal arrangement with a living room.

Whatever kinds of furniture colleges and universities provide their students, they strive to balance the school's desire for longevity with the students' desire for comfort.

“We want it durable — something that can last for 20 years — but we also want something that is aesthetically pleasing so it doesn't feel like a prison or a barracks,” says Jon Eldridge, dean of students at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore.


In a residence-hall lounge, colleges want students to feel comfortable when they plop into a chair or sofa, but they want the furniture to last longer than the student's tenure at the school. So housing officials look for items less prone to breaking down under the typical wear-and-tear of campus life.

“We don't buy furniture with loose cushions, “ says Carol von Tersch, assistant director of student housing for the University of Kansas (KU) in Lawrence, Kan. “We try to avoid pieces with buttons or tufting.”

KU also avoids chairs with upholstery on their arms, which don't stand up well to student treatment.

“Arms that are upholstered are easily soiled, and they can be written on, or be carved on,” says von Tersch. “Wood can be restored.”

Upholstery fabric comes in varying levels of durability, which is measured in “rubs:” The higher the number of rubs, the more heavy-duty the fabric.

“We look for good-quality upholstery with higher rubs,” says John Selin, director of residence services for Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

Drake also looks for furniture on sleds instead of individual legs. Students want to be able to move the furniture to meet their needs at any given time, and the sleds make the pieces easier to slide across the room.

At Lewis & Clark, a lounge is more likely to have more loveseats and chairs instead of larger sofas so students can move pieces more easily and have more flexibility.

“We want it to feel like someone's living room,” says Eldridge.

In a classroom building or administration area, a lounge area may have furniture similar to what is found in a residence hall, but it doesn't have to approach the homey feeling schools are trying to establish where students live.

“You can have more of a waiting-room atmosphere in a classroom building,” says Eldridge. “It's not going to be moved around as much, and people aren't going to be sitting in it for three to five hours in a row. It can have more of an institutional feel.”


The best way to know if students will accept the furnishings a school provides is to ask them before you buy it. At Lewis & Clark, officials solicited student comments as they prepared to purchase furniture for three residence halls the school is building. They set up an area where students could view some of the items under consideration.

“We brought in different furniture from different companies, and we set up a computer on one of the desks,” says Eldridge. “The students could sit down right there and give us their input.”

The student feedback told Lewis & Clark officials that they needed to purchase desks that were deep enough to accommodate a computer monitor, yet not so deep that it would stick out if it were placed under a lofted bed. If the desks were to have hutches, they had to be removable. The desks needed to have at least one drawer that could accommodate file folders. The armoires for students needed to have a mirror attached to the inside of one of the doors.

“We want to know what the room will feel like to the students,” says Eldridge.


At Lewis and Clark, students can bring their own furniture, but housing officials wish they wouldn't. “It's usually the kind of stuff that they get at Goodwill,” says Eldridge.

The school hopes that the furniture it provides is good enough so that students don't feel they need to supplement it with their own things.

“We try to provide a family feel, so they won't want to get rid of it and bring in their own stuff,” says Eldridge.

The University of Kansas lets students bring their own pieces of furniture into their rooms, as long as space allows. But some students don't always recognize how limited the space in a residence-hall room can be.

“One student turned up this fall with a pool table,” says von Tersch. “It didn't stay.”

SIDEBAR: Cooperative living

Officials at just about every college or university have recognized that young people enrolling in their schools expect more from campus housing. They want comforts and amenities that weren't provided when their older brothers and sisters lived in residence halls.

The University of Kansas (KU), like many schools, has responded by converting many of the traditional double-occupancy rooms in its residence halls to suites that offer more square footage per student. But it also offers select students a homier atmosphere — and a break on room and board — through its scholarship halls.

KU has 10 scholarship halls on its Lawrence campus, says Carol von Tersch, assistant director of student housing. Each houses about 50 students, who share cooking and household responsibilities. In return, students pay $1,200 a year less than standard residence-hall rates.

To live in a scholarship hall, a student must complete at least 28 credit hours during the academic year and have a grade-point average of at least 2.5.

The different living arrangements and clientele furnish the space differently. A typical residence-hall room has a desk, chair, dresser and bed for each student. Most scholarship halls are composed of small sleeping rooms that are attached to a larger living room.

“They are the same quality rooms as the other residence halls, but they also have a main living room,” says von Tersch. “We try to make that more residential. We use high-end residential furniture.”

Scholarship halls also have a piano and stereo in each hall.

By attracting a more serious student, the scholarship halls are able to have higher-quality furniture because it is likely to escape the punishment it might get in a standard residence-hall lounge.

“The students have higher academic achievement,” says von Tersch. “We have less problems with vandalism.”

With more demand than spaces available, KU hopes to add more scholarship halls in the coming years.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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