This Year, College Students Want More Out of Dorm Life

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SUV packed quickly with belongings thrown in for move home from college
Credit: Shutterstock/ CLS Digital Arts

Eileen Kim is a sophomore in college, and she’s never visited her school’s campus. Her Admitted Students Weekend was held virtually. Plans to live on campus were paused. While Kim spent the past year working for the school’s admissions office from her parents’ home, fielding concerns and queries about the on-campus experience, for the most part, they’re questions she doesn’t have firsthand answers to. 

“I am still very unsure of what on-campus life will look like because of the pandemic,” Kim says.

And now, with weeks to go before she’s set to move on campus for the first time — though that’s once again dependent on what happens with rising COVID-19 cases — Kim says that she and other students who had banked on living on campus as they readied for the 2021 fall semester are unsure there’s any place for them to live.

“I feel like the school should have been more prepared,” Kim says, adding that she understands that the uncertainty of the pandemic made planning more challenging.

In fact, schools across the United States underestimated the demand for on-campus housing during this upcoming school year: In May, the University of Tampa blamed a “surge of interest” for abruptly putting students of all grade levels on a housing wait list that the school admitted they were unlikely to get off of. Dartmouth College is offering students cash to move off campus in order to free up the demand for on-campus housing, and some students at the University of California San Diego only recently found out that they weren’t guaranteed housing — instead, they were belatedly tossed into a competitive rental market with weeks to spare, and plenty of belongings to move. 

“I am still very unsure of what on-campus life will look like because of the pandemic.”

Eileen Kim

The potential housing shortage highlights yet another stark inequity on college campuses that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year and a half. While some students left campuses and returned to family homes during the early weeks of shutdowns, others experienced housing insecurity, and scrambled to access bathrooms and clean water while their peers baked sourdough bread. Others were tasked with navigating unreliable Wi-Fi needed for college classes, job loss, and caring for their siblings or older relatives on top of academics. Nearly three in five students experienced basic needs insecurity at some point, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found in a survey. 

Now, as campuses plan to reopen, students moving back to campuses are demanding more out of their in-person experiences and housing situations. To many, this is an opportunity for a more accessible, more responsive, and more inclusive version of on-campus living.

The Relationship Between Residential Housing and Class Stratification

Dorm life, in general, is expensive: One estimate put the average cost of room and board around $8,887 per year at public colleges and universities, and around $10,089 a year for private schools. As The Washington Post noted in 2015, housing and meal plan expenses at some colleges and universities can cost more than tuition itself — and some data suggests housing is a significant portion of individual student debt. And, if your school requires you to live on campus for a portion of your enrollment, simply seeking more affordable housing isn’t always an option. 

That there are massive disparities in housing on college campuses isn’t new — nor is it a secret. The first building at a U.S. college ever constructed as a residence hall for students was paid for by a religious group in Britain because white students at Harvard wouldn’t live with Indigenous students, according to Carla Yanni, Ph.D., a Distinguished Professor and the Director of Architectural Studies at Rutgers and author of “Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory.” “That’s a very early indication of the fact that dormitories exclude as often as they include,” Dr. Yanni tells Apartment Therapy. “So on the one hand, they are there to create fellowship, but on the other hand, they reinforce race and gender and class differences.” 

According to Dr. Yanni, the past year of dorm closures supports a major contention of her 2019 book, which says that some students go to college for the social experience and living on campus as much as they do for the academics — and sometimes even more so. Because college has historically been presented as being, at least in part, about friendships and broadening one’s horizons, campus housing can be seen as part of the elusive “college experience” package. For others, this is a matter of necessity, as would be the case for students who might otherwise be houseless or in unsafe situations. For those coming from unstable home or living situations, shouldering the bulk of household work, or both, dorms are a refuge, and a chance to set their schedules on their own terms, have basic needs met, and experience safety and stability. 

“On the one hand, [dormitories] are there to create fellowship, but on the other hand, they reinforce race and gender and class differences.”

Carla Yanni, Ph.D.

Now, having schools carry on into the 2021 school year without fixing a historically exclusionary system means that more students than ever may be affected by shortcomings that aren’t advertised in glossy brochures.

Off-Campus Housing Poses Problems, Too

Imani Herring left her HBCU’s campus during spring break in March of 2020 with the rest of her classmates due to the pandemic, and now she’s eager to return. The rising junior got vaccinated as soon as she could, but her school took an influx of first-year students, far more than previous classes, which meant that a significant portion of the student body — including Herring — was told in June they would need to scramble to find off-campus housing. While parents, students, and alumnae attempted to share resources for students to find safe and affordable housing, Herring, a first-generation college student from a low-income household, didn’t have the funds to lease an apartment near campus, where rent starts at around $1,400. 

“I was crushed by this, as you could guess,” she tells Apartment Therapy, explaining that she felt it was irresponsible of the school to put students in this position, given the pandemic and economic recession. She was job searching and applying for scholarships “like wild.” 

Just as dorms can carry hefty price tags, plunging students into a city’s rental market can create new barriers. There’s the cost, given that living near campus might be expensive. (The off-campus student housing market has become a major draw for developers, who reportedly see it as “recession proof,” and these arrangements can lock students into housing agreements.) Plus, commuting or nonresidential students often get the short end of the stick in terms of campus life, Dr. Yanni points out. Activities, clubs, tutoring, and other opportunities are frequently organized around the schedules of on-campus students, which means that students who have to factor in travel time are treated as afterthoughts, or given the extra burden of an early or late commute. 

“I was so desperate to be back on campus that I would’ve done anything they told me to. “Vaccination? Okay. Three hundred dollar deposit? Okay. My first-born child? Say less.”

Imani Herring

Recently and surprisingly, Herring received an email from the housing office offering her a room in one of the campus suites. Blown away and excited, she paid off her balance for the semester and dipped into her savings so she could put down the deposit required to reserve a spot. “At that point, I was so desperate to be back on campus that I would’ve done anything they told me to,” she says. “Vaccination? Okay. Three hundred dollar deposit? Okay. My first-born child? Say less.”

She describes getting to live in the suites as nothing short of a miracle, adding that she’s most excited to “finally get back to the life I was unceremoniously ripped away from, the sisterhood I grew to love, and the school that taught me to be proud of the woman I was becoming.” But she feels for her classmates who are still struggling with housing and weren’t so lucky.

Dorms Aren’t Accessible to All

Even scheduling, financial aid, and some scholarships or awards are rooted in the idea that students will be living on campus and only tending to their academics. In general, the stereotypical model of the “traditional student” doesn’t represent most students, including part-time students, transfer students, students who are parenting or caregiving, and students who are working while in school. It also feeds the myth that every student attends a four-year institution, and does so on the same timeline. 

Heather Atherton, a transfer student who started at her new institution in August 2020, knows that struggle all too well. She still remembers how, on one campus tour, the guide asked if the “student” would be joining the tour shortly, or if she was just the mom taking the tour, only to look dumbfounded when Atherton explained that she was, in fact, the student. One program flat-out told her nontraditional students were automatically ineligible for campus housing; other programs offered a full-ride scholarship if Atherton committed to living in a dorm, but reduced the amount when she explained she has a 16-year-old child and living in a dorm wasn’t an option. 

“Navigating housing options gave me the impression that the majority of institutions still mistakenly assume that students are single 18- to 22-year-olds and those that aren’t can either bend themselves to fit or figure it out on their own,” Atherton says. 

Atherton, who spent the majority of the past year studying side-by-side with her daughter, does not believe institutions have a full understanding of who students actually are. “We are not a monolith, yet issues such as campus housing firmly maintain a one-size-fits-all approach,” she says. 

And Atherton believes there’s a better way. She’s watched schools buy up property around campuses to expand, but says she never hears of them giving full consideration to needs of adult students or parenting students, or of them addressing the high cost of campus meal plans and student dollars. “I would love to see campus housing options that allow all students the opportunity for proximity,” she says, and to see “spaces on campuses where families can gather.” 

““We are not a monolith, yet issues such as campus housing firmly maintain a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Heather Atherton

Barriers Remain

While schools are supposed to be compliant under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), that isn’t always the case — and regardless, lack of accessibility can cause issues for students who haven’t disclosed their needs to their schools. As some experts point out, the structure of how colleges were designed is ableist. Myriad student newspapers have covered the ways campuses have failed to support students with disabilities, or meet standards of accessibility.  

That’s something Harley Andromeda began chronicling in spring 2021, outlining the wide-ranging disability issues they’d found on their campus: A dorm building lacked an elevator, which restricted access for disabled or injured students. Dining areas often failed to label food, putting students with food allergies or sensitivities in danger. The counseling center could only be contacted via phone, which created barriers for students experiencing depression and anxiety, as well as students who are hard of hearing or have auditory processing issues. “It’s honestly disheartening that such clear accessibility issues aren’t met,” Andromeda says.

This year, Andromeda, who is going into their third year of college, will be living in a dorm with their significant other, so they will have the most support they’ve ever had in a campus living space. But they believe a lot needs to change about campus housing, especially after the pandemic — and that the onus should not be on students to disclose their needs for that to happen. “Possible accommodations need to be made available and known to all students, not just students with known disabilities,” they say. As of now, Andromeda says they aren’t aware of any action taken to address these issues on their campus. The student government president acknowledged their post, so they’re hopeful at least some changes may still be made.

Moving On and Moving Forward

What if schools were designed to meet the needs of student populations, rather than requiring students to conform? As Atherton points out, that could include addressing the high cost of meal plans (and offering family plans), investment in meaningful remote methods and pedagogies that create opportunity and flexibility for students, and not making success contingent on how active a student is in campus clubs. “If it is constructed specifically for the 18-year-old, full-time student receiving an allowance from home, throw it out because that is not who students are anymore,” she says.

“How doesn’t living environment impact college students’ mental health?”

Jessi Gold, M.D.

Jessi Gold, M.D., an assistant professor and the director of wellness, engagement, and outreach at Washington University in St. Louis, says planning hybrid in-person and virtual social events would also be helpful as students return to campus life. She thinks having orientation for sophomores, specifically, will be important, given that there will essentially be two first-year classes on many campuses. 

Dr. Gold also identifies a need for more accessible mental health services, both for students to use on campus regardless of their housing status, as well as remote and long-term options. “As it stands, most college [therapy] options are short-term, and I think they probably should be prepared with good telehealth options, even financially covering some number of sessions, and allowing options for longer-term care,” she says. Thinking of how students are living, on campus or off, is as important as how they’re doing academically — and often, one informs the other. 

“How doesn’t living environment impact college students’ mental health?” Dr. Gold asks.

Eileen Kim is still unsure of what campus life will look like for her — which is all the more frustrating given her potential move-in date is fast approaching. She hopes that her school and others like it will offer sponsor groups (typically, Kim’s school places first-year students in communities called sponsor groups led by two sophomores, who host events where students can get to know each other) for sophomores during their first time on campus, more college-sponsored events on campus and off to build community, and more accessibility for dorm buildings overall.

Imani Herring knows, too, that getting back on campus doesn’t automatically fix everything. “I think we, as Black women, need time to grieve. Grieve the time, people, and opportunities we lost,” she explains. 

She’s also worried about how to make ends meet financially, and the threat of the Delta variant sending everyone off campus again looms daily. Many colleges and universities are requiring vaccination for students, but some plans remain to be determined, meaning the uncertainty rests with students, too. 

Herring hopes that people are “gentle” with the college students in their lives this upcoming fall. “It’s beyond to expect things to go back to running smoothly after we get back on campus,” she says, “and it certainly won’t be the same as it was pre-COVID.”