Should We Become a Residential Campus?

Podcast by Daniel Barwick

My last podcast was about whether community colleges should build dorms. A number of listeners contacted me to ask the following question. So what of your school has no dorms at all and you’re considering becoming a residential school? They were describing that at each of their schools they were having that conversation, because they had no dorms at all. All of the discussion in my original podcast centered around the question of a school adding additional dorms, and they really wanted me to speak to the issue of becoming a residential college in a case in which that school is not yet a residential college. What are the pitfalls? What are the pros and cons of that? So I thought I would take this podcast and talk about that because it’s a pretty important question. You can argue that it’s a more important question than the ones that I was addressing because it’s a bigger change for a school to go from being a nonresidential school (often called a commuter school,) to a residential school, than simply increasing its residential footprint.

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There are a number of justifications that are offered for moving to a residential style school. Some of the benefits are very real. Some of them are overstated, and so I’ll just I’ll just talk about what are normally the top four that schools tend to offer when they’re considering building a dorm for the first time. The big one is always increased enrollment. Most schools have a tendency to overstate how quickly a new dorm will yield enrollment. Typically, the only case in which the additional enrollment from a new dorm can be clearly justified is when the school is already over capacity; they already have a residential program, and they’re over capacity. At ICC for example, for a number of years, we were actually placing students in local hotels for the start of the semester until a certain number of students had dropped out. And then we were able to move those students back into available spaces in the dorms. In that kind of a situation, you can calculate pretty precisely exactly how much dorm capacity you are going to be able to fill, even if your enrollment remains unchanged.

But in my experience, most small schools who are building an additional dorm have a tendency to, I think, overstate by about 50% the amount of time it will take to fill that dorm. For a school moving from no residential facilities to becoming a residential school, I think that school is even more, I won’t say “in the dark,” but I will say they do not have a reputation of course for being residential, so they’re not a natural destination for people who are looking for a residential experience. And so I think that they have to assume very conservatively how long it will take before that dorm is at, not just to full capacity, but at the very least a capacity in which it’s not a drain on the institution financially.

Another justification that’s often offered a benefit to moving to a residential platform is that it will enable you to offer new programs. Remember that the original podcast discussing the additional dorms was about community colleges, particularly small rural community colleges. In the case of rural community colleges, there may not be enough local commuter students to have a program in X, but if you add residential students who are interested in X, then you have a critical mass and you can have that program. Actually, that’s a good argument. The only catch is that it’s really not clear how you’re supposed to calculate the cost of that program. If you’re adding a new program and you needed to build a dorm and convert to a residential platform in order to make that program work, then clearly somehow the cost of becoming a residential school has to be calculated into the cost of that program. And of course, remember, it’s not just the cost of building the dorm and there are many other costs associated with being a residential school. I’ll talk about those in a moment.

A third argument that’s often given is that the college wants to be able to offer what’s usually called a traditional college experience. The assumption is that there are students, perhaps even local students who would have commuted before, who would actually prefer to live in a dorm. I discussed this at some length in the previous podcast. So I’ll just say that I’m pretty suspicious of this approach. It certainly provides something that maybe a student might want, but that’s not necessarily an educational thing. It’s more of a lifestyle experience, and I’m not really sure, especially for a taxpayer supported institution, that it can be justified to create additional costs for the taxpayer just to satisfy some sort of interest or desire of the student that isn’t necessarily an academic desire.

The fourth argument is that it creates a more diverse student body. This is actually an excellent argument. It’s certainly true if you’re in a small rural community college and you’re really just bringing in commuter students from nearby, you’re going to have a pretty uniform group of students. Whereas if you have dorms and you can recruit from anywhere, you can actually create as diverse a student body as you want, depending on how much resources you’re willing to invest in that effort. But it does let you reshape your student body into one that is more diverse. And I think the research is pretty clear that a diverse student body produces a better educational experience for all of the students at that school.

There are some very real downsides, some very real costs, both financial and otherwise, to moving to a residential platform. I’ll deal with the finances first. There are some very real costs, financial costs to moving to a residential platform. Those costs are real. They are in many cases unknown, and in my experience, they are almost always understated. Some of these costs are completely obvious, like the construction itself and whether or not the occupancy of the dorm will be sufficient to cover the costs of that construction. Some of them are much less obvious. Does your school have security? I’m going to suggest that if you are a strictly a commuter campus and you are small and you are rural, you very likely do not have security. If you become a residential campus, you are absolutely going to need security of some type. It will depend on the size of the dorms that you’re building and your precise circumstances, but that security need is going to range from private security that patrols say at a minimum in the evenings all the way up to a police force. There’s obviously a wide range of costs associated with these, but every one of them is significant.

Are your dining facilities large enough? At Independence Community College, we have hundreds and hundreds of residential students, and they eat in a dining hall that was originally designed for, I kid you not, 90 students. We have needed to enlarge those facilities and we have needed to absorb the costs of increased dining hours in order to accommodate all of the students that we have.

What about staffing? You’re going to need additional student life people; you’re going to need perhaps onsite counselors. You may need a medical staff. There is no shortage of things that people just don’t think about, but our necessity when there are hundreds of people living 24 seven on a campus, but aside from the financial costs, much more difficult to calculate and much more difficult to appreciate if you haven’t been there, is the cultural shift that will have to happen at your school in order to move to being a residential campus.

Essentially, you’re caring for students 24/7. As a commuter school, you may have a wide range of offerings. You may have daytime classes, you may have evening classes, but you don’t have the responsibility for making sure that there are constructive activities for hundreds of students at 3:00 PM on a Sunday afternoon. If you are a rural community college and you have residential students, you are going to need to provide student life activities for those students, not 24/7, but you are going to have to think about those students in a 24/7 kind of way. That is, you’re going to have to remember that you’re responsible for their security, for their food, for their housing. Of course, you’re going to have to figure out the different kinds of activities that they’re going to do. That’s what residential life means, that you have to think about the lives of the students. Everything from, for example, do they need transportation to and from airports that they may be traveling into? What kinds of shopping is available for them? Do you need to organize some sort of transportation to the local Walmart so they can go shopping? There’s all kinds of things that you have to think about when students are living on your campus that you didn’t have to think about before. And learning to think about those things goes beyond just the cost of doing those things.

Thinking about those is a shift in culture, but the culture will shift in other ways and you need to think about that. For example, nobody likes to think about this, but is your community xenophobic? Because if you import hundreds of students, some of them from other states, some of them from other countries, the locals may have something to say about that. It may be good, it may be bad, but you need to think in advance about what that’s going to be. Is your local community racially tolerant? If you do not have a racially diverse community to start with and you have students that come from racially diverse places, you are going to confront race issues. There’s no getting away from that. You will need to think about the community in terms of their willingness to support a school that is educating students from far away. It’s one thing to say, “oh well, you know, those students pay their own way.” Well, at a public school that’s very, very rarely the case. It’s usually only the case for international students. In other words, there is typically some sort of direct or indirect taxpayer subsidy of those students. And let me tell you that even if those students are paying their own way, there will be a percentage of the population who doesn’t know that, and who asserts incorrectly that they are paying for the education of somebody who came to your community, took that education and left.

You are going to have to think about how you are going to educate the community about what the costs versus the benefits are of having residential students. Because if you do not educate them, nature abhors a vacuum and incorrect information will flow in to fill that vacuum. In a short podcast like this, I can really only do the tip of the iceberg about the cultural changes that will take place. If you are a commuter school and you move to a residential model, suffice to say that those changes are profound. The very nature of the institution itself will be changed as will be the perception of that institution by the very people who are funding it. And if you don’t get the cultural transformation right than the actual financial cost increases because the residential experience for students will be worse. Your retention or ability to recruit will be worse, so your occupancy will be worse, so your costs will be higher. If your campus has recently gone through this transformation, I’d very much like to hear from you. I’m working on an article that talks about this kind of cultural shift and I’d love to be able to provide even more real life examples than I have.

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