The Benefits of Living on Campus: Do Residence Halls Provide Distinctive Environments of Engagement?

The following is An excerpt from “The Benefits of Living on Campus: Do Residence Halls Provide Distinctive Environments of Engagement?” originally published in the in volume 55, issue 3 of the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice.

The changing landscape of on- and off-campus undergraduate residential options underline the need to reexamine the impact of on-campus living. Using multi-institutional survey data from first-year students, this study investigates the relationship of residential status with engagement and perceived gains in learning and development. Results indicate, after con- trolling for student and institution characteristics, that on-campus residence has small positive effects on some outcomes but not on others where effects might be expected.

Student affairs theory and practice is rooted in the belief that opportunities for learning outside of the classroom are abundant (American Council on Education, 1937), and a great many of these experiences are shaped by the environments and programs provided to those living in campus residences. In the first volume of their compendium of research, Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) confirmed that living on campus was “the single most consistent within-college determinant of the impact of college” (p. 611). Along with Blimling (1993), they later explained that the social-psychological environment of residence halls is “qualitatively different” from off-campus living, hypothesizing that residence halls lead to social, cultural, and extracurricular involvement and, in turn, to broader student outcomes. Astin (1985) emphasized the importance of proximity to campus resources, stating that “simply by virtue of eating, sleeping, and spending their waking hours in the college campus,” students are more likely to identify with college life (p. 145).

In their second volume, Pascarella and Terenzini (2005) moderated their appraisal of residence life, summarizing post-1990 research finding the effects to be less prominent and likely indirect. Among the reasons for restraint is that much of the earlier research was biased toward traditional, full-time, White undergraduates attending four-year institutions without consideration for potential differences in the experiences of underrepresented students (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Recent discourse about living on campus is even more subdued. Since 2000, studies have found uneven benefits for students of differing identities (Harwood, Huntt, Mendenhall, & Lewis, 2012; Strayhorn & Mullins, 2012; Turley & Wodtke, 2010). For example, while residence halls have the potential to foster positive interactions with students from diverse backgrounds, they alternatively can encourage group- think and provide a space for hostile discriminatory practices (Blimling, 1993; Harper et al., 2011; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Strayhorn & Mullins, 2012). In their review, Mayhew et al. (2016) concluded that studies of campus residence were generally thin and often do not support claims of positive impact.

Researchers suggest that such findings are the result of collegiate and residential experiences becoming less immersive. In the past, living on campus was associated with pervasive communication and interactions among peers within the institution. Currently, with ubiquitous mobile devices, social media, and wifi, it is much easier to interact with family and friends on the outside, which means on-campus students may not rely as heavily on those within their living environment for social interaction (Gemmill & Peterson, 2006).

The asserted benefits of on-campus living also include access to a wide variety of educational and community programming that encourage organic interactions between students and integrate students’ intellectual and social lives (Blimling, Whitt & Associates, 1999; Terenzini & Pascarella, 1984, 1997). Scholars pointed out that residential students connect the in- and out-of-classroom experiences through more frequent interactions with faculty (Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, Whitt, & Associates, 2005; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005), and access to professional staff makes spontaneous conversation and emotional support available, benefits that are immeasurable but believed to add significant contributions to learning and development (MacKinnon & Associates, 2004). As institutions seek to inspire reflective learning outside of the classroom, residence halls provide purposeful spaces for student affairs professionals to plan formal and informal educational opportunities (Davidson, Henderson, Knotts, & Swain, 2011; Moran, 2001).

However, assessing the discrete benefits of such programs can be difficult. Direct comparisons of students living on campus to their off-campus peers are complex, and there is great variation among types of residence halls, programming, staffing, and participation among residents. While a good amount of anecdotal evidence supports the benefits of living on campus, valid measurements are difficult to achieve.

To understand the extant research on the impact of living on campus, it is important to clarify the different types of living options used in studies. While the terminology often suggests discrete categories (e.g., on-campus vs. off-campus), the actual living arrangements of students are more complex. Astin (1993) examined four measures (at home, in a college residence hall, in a private room or apartment, and distance of home from college) yet found that the effects had more to do with leaving home to attend college than with the place of residence. Chickering and Reisser (1993), citing Pace’s (1984) research, referenced three housing categories (residence halls, fraternity and sorority houses, and off campus) and found developmental benefits for students living in residence halls and in Greek houses. In addition to residence halls and Greek houses, Pace (1980) added a dimension of distance for students living off campus, differentiating between walking distance and driving distance to the institution. Pace’s categories were adopted by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and provide the key independent variable for the current study.

With the additional dimension of commuting distance, readers might revisit Chickering and Reisser’s (1993) assertion that commuter students are at a disadvantage because they lack access to the beneficial social-psychological context of on-campus living. The tacit understanding is that there is something important about living in campus housing rather than just living close to campus. But is it proximity that matters or, rather, is it engagement with programming, staff, and access to diverse peers that make a difference?

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