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  • A Residential Paradox?Residence Hall Attributes and College Student Outcomes
  • Ryan Bronkema (bio) and Nicholas A. Bowman (bio)

Few environments have the potential to shape the outcomes of college students as much as residence halls. In their influential review, Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) concluded that living on campus is the single most important college experience in terms of contributing to a wide range of learning, cognitive, attitudinal, psychosocial, and educational attainment outcomes. As a result, residence halls have the capacity to foster a strong sense of community (Schroeder, Mable, & Associates, 1994) as well as other important outcomes such as college satisfaction and academic achievement. More recently, rigorous multi-institutional studies have shown that living in a residence hall predicts greater retention and graduation rates (e.g., Oseguera & Rhee, 2009; Schudde, 2011; Titus, 2006); however, this relationship may largely be indirect: that is, living on campus may result in improved social integration and belonging, which then leads to greater educational attainment (Mayhew, Rockenbach, Bowman, Seifert, & Wolniak, 2016). Given the high costs of building new residence halls, additional research about effective design can help better inform future campus planning and decision-making. In this study, we explored a potential paradox in which the suite-and apartment-style buildings that college students often desire might lead to reductions in their sense of community, college satisfaction, academic achievement, and intent to persist.


The model of student departure used by Braxton et al. (2013) frames retention at residential campuses as a product of student entry characteristics, student motivations, institutional motivations, and social integration at the institution. Drawing upon recent empirical findings to support this model, Braxton et al. highlight the important link between residential students' sense of community and their retention, arguing that social integration is largely irrelevant at commuter campuses; thus, residence halls may play an integral role in shaping this key determinant of student success.

Although residence hall designs have the potential to shape students' lives considerably (Schroeder & Jackson, 1987), empirical research linking the specific characteristics of residence halls and desired outcomes is almost nonexistent. Cross, Zimmerman, and O'Grady (2009) identified three types of residence hall designs. Standard or traditional designs have a series of single-, double-, or triple-occupancy rooms that share a common bathroom with the entire floor. Suites have two or more rooms connected with a common bathroom (and sometimes a single room with its own bathroom). Deluxe rooms or apartment-style halls share the design of suites with two or more rooms sharing a bathroom, but they have additional common space and sometimes [End Page 624] a kitchen. Devlin, Donovan, Nicolov, Nold, and Zandan (2008) found that students who lived in suite-style residence halls felt a lesser sense of community than students in standard room designs because students in suites were less likely to extend socially outside of their enclosed space to interact with students throughout the hall. Similarly, Chambliss and Takacs (2014) found that standard room designs made it easier for students to socialize and make friends, given the close proximity among rooms, tendency to keep doors open, and frequent interactions within common space.

Despite these social benefits of standard or traditional residence halls, Chambliss and Takacs (2014) and Devlin et al. (2008) both noted that many incoming and current students prefer suites and apartment-style halls. These students highly value the aesthetics and amenities that are often available in these designs, which may result in part from the fact that these halls tend to be built more recently than many traditional buildings. As a result of this demand, college administrators often support the construction of suite-and apartment-style halls (Cross et al., 2009). Thus, a paradox exists between students' preferences for residence hall designs and the outcomes that may result from living in these spaces (although it is important to note that this evidence comes from just two single-institution studies).

Another important question about residence hall design is whether students should be placed—or refused placement—in a particular residence hall based on their year in college. At many institutions, certain halls are designated only for first-year students or for advanced students to foster different types of...