Humanity's thirst for knowledge always has been intimately linked with the desire to apply that knowledge to the rigors of everyday life. From the centuries-old monastic enclaves of Europe and Asia to the campuses of the 21st century, educators have long recognized the enhanced value of an education that integrates the formal and informal exchange of information with the routines and rigors of a social setting.

Not all higher-education experiences are equal. Of the approximately 13 million undergraduates enrolled in U.S. colleges, the largest segment — 5.7 million students — attends community colleges. The average tuition for community colleges — $1,735 — is relatively modest, and the experience is limited to the classroom. In contrast, at private colleges, which account for 2.2 million undergraduates and where the community primarily is based on a residential model, the average tuition is $18,263. Public four-year colleges represent an enrollment of 4.8 million undergraduates at an average tuition of $4,081.

Despite the cost differences among these programs, some campuses are making the decision to create new residential programs or expand existing residential facilities. What are the reasons and the perceived advantages behind these changes?

The numbers

Amidst the vast amount of data contained in U.S. Census reports, three statistics should catch the eyes of college and university planners: overall college enrollment, diversity and family structure. From 2000 to 2012, college enrollment is projected to increase between 12 percent and 19 percent (to between 17.1 and 18.2 million students), according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The diversity of the nation's population also is rising. In 1970, the U. S. Census recorded 1.4 percent of the population in the category of “race other than white or black.” In 2000, this figure was 12.5 percent and climbing. The nature of the traditional family structure also is in a dramatic state of transition. In 1970, the number of households categorized as “married” stood at 70 percent. By 2000, this figure had fallen to 53 percent. Most significant, about one child in four in the United States is raised in a single-parent household.

Changing priorities

What does this mean for today's institutions of higher learning? First, people who have the skills required to successfully comprehend, navigate and manage an increasingly complex and competitive world will have a clear advantage over those with a more parochial, self-centered point of view. Second, despite the overall increase in the college-age population, it may be risky for an institution to totally rely on a local commuter population for enrollment (and revenue). St. John's University in Jamaica, N.Y., for example, embarked on a residential program in 1995.

“Continuing to rely on local New York City students, coming from a school system that continues to be troubled, would both lower our enrollment and lower the level of the students we could attract,” says Susan Ebbs, senior vice president of student life at St. John's. “We also were interested in the possibilities for geographic diversity and the ability to attract more international students.”

Although the marketplace for additional beds appears to be growing, institutions should be wary of creating residence halls simply in response to demand. Most residence halls have little space devoted to a school's formal curriculum, but a residential program still can contribute to the mission of the school. The reason for this lies in the expectations articulated by the students themselves.

In its 2002 survey of housing satisfaction, Education Benchmarking, Inc. (EBI), in partnership with the Association of College and University Housing Officers (ACUHO), determined the key priorities, or predictors, that most influenced students' overall satisfaction with their school's housing program. The study determined that the top predictor was “interaction with others in the hall.” This included the ability to meet people, live cooperatively, resolve conflicts and improve interpersonal relationships. The next most significant predictor of satisfaction with housing was “dining services,” including food quality, variety (and cost) of selections, cleanliness of facilities and the perceived level of service.

Residential advantages

Additional advantages of the residential experience include greater degrees of active and collaborative learning, more interaction with faculty members, potential for increased interaction with students of diverse backgrounds and beliefs, and easier access to campus programs that directly support the educational and social goals of the institution. In other words, as studies of alumni and business-school candidates have shown, the most valuable acquired knowledge for use in “the real world” is leadership, including skills in conflict resolution.

Residence halls, as the centerpieces of an effective residential program, can serve as the most fertile area for students' development in these areas.

“The residential students are quickly becoming the student leaders of organizations,” says Henry Humphreys, director of residence life at Boston College. “Activities and meetings are increasingly planned for the late afternoon, evening and weekend times. Commuters always will be the larger percentage of students, but residential students will in the near future dominate the culture, tone and social life of campus.”

The construction of residence halls alone cannot create the environment necessary to support a student's quest for personal development. Campus planners should be mindful of the broad range of associated facilities and services required to support student residential life. Among other considerations:

  • Security, including revised protocols and extended hours of operation and access.

  • Food service, including a variety of menus, venues and access times.

  • Social and health services, including careful coordination among resident advisers, counselors, health professionals and administrators.

  • Evening and weekend recreation, including opportunities for both scheduled and impromptu activities, such as athletics, fitness, cooking, games and dances, as well as passive pursuits such as prayer or quiet contemplation, movies, television and casual social interaction.

  • Student organizations, including flexible space for athletic, recreational, governmental and special-interest groups.

  • Building maintenance, including added staff to provide extended hours for repairs, trash and other services.

Accordingly, the design for new student residence facilities must provide for a wide variety of functions above and beyond the spaces required for sleeping and bathing. Incorporating study lounges, social lounges, kitchens, fitness rooms, club rooms and worship spaces into the residential community can add dimension and meaning to a student's daily life.

Curley, AIA, is principal architect in the New York office of Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, Architecture and Engineering, PC.