Polly Graham, Sarah Hurtado, Bob Gonyea — Within the higher education community, there is a prevalent belief that living on campus is of benefit to students. Evidenced in policies, rhetoric, and resource distribution, many campuses operate with the assumption that living on campus increases the likelihood of student success. Most residential programs offer targeted programming, professional staffing, and increased access to a wide variety of resources among other amenities. With increased attention and access to support, it is commonsensical to assume that on-campus living is preferential to other housing options. Furthermore, there is scholarship corroborating the advantages of on-campus living, such as Pascarella and Terenzini's How College Affects Students. In the 1991 edition, they asserted the significance of residence life, concluding living on campus was "the single most consistent within-college determinant of the impact of college" (p. 611). However, the landscape of college housing has changed significantly since their pronouncement.
Many institutions have transitioned away from traditional residence halls with double-loaded corridors and community restrooms to suite-style living and semi-private restrooms. The single landline phone per room or even per hall has all but disappeared with the emergence of personal cell phones. Social media has changed the way students interact with each other and the world around them. College students are more diverse than they were in the 1970s and 80s, as are the issues, concerns, and expectations they bring to college with them. Scholarship that is more recent has pointed to the uneven benefits of living on campus, especially when taking into account minoritized identities; for example, Mayhew et al.'s 2016 edition of How College Affects Students concluded that studies of living on campus are "sparse for most outcomes, and the findings often do not suggest benefits of this experience" (p. 545). It is not just the on campus experience that is changing, but off-campus housing options as well. Non-university housing options are increasingly available and accommodating, offering many of the amenities historically only present in traditional residence halls.
Our study sought to better understand the influence of differing living environments on college student engagement. We used four scales to classify and characterize types of living environments: (1) Access to Programs and Developmental Activities; (2) Perceptions of Safety and Support; (3) Student and Professional Staff; and, (4) Other Staff (faculty, advisors, tutors). We then investigated the relationship between the scales and select NSSE Engagement Indicators and perceived gains in learning and development. We found that having access to programs had a slight positive impact on all selected indicators as did staffing on some of the indicators; however, what made a substantially large positive difference was students' sense of safety and support (see graph below).
In other words, more important than where students live or what staff and programming students have access to as a result of their housing, is their sense of safety. If institutions are interested in increasing their students' collaborative learning, quality of interactions, sense of support in their environments, and their perceived co-curricular gains, practitioners should focus on ensuring students feel safe. Of course, safety is not a one-size-fits all, as it is likely that what makes one student feel safe (e.g., uniformed police officer) may make another feel unsafe. However, our study suggests that it is worth the time and effort to better understand what creates a sense of safety and support for all students. For more information, you may access our full presentation here.