Good news for the champions of on-campus housing

Proponents of on-campus student housing have new evidence to demonstrate the benefits of living on campus in a student’s first year. That’s because a recent pilot project by five Canadian universities has shown that living in residence has a clear positive impact for students’ first-year-GPA, retention to second year, and persistence to graduation. 

Better yet, these benefits are even more pronounced for international students. 

For University of Waterloo Director of Housing Glen Weppler, the results give Canadian housing professionals a new way to speak about the benefits of residence without relying on data from other countries. “Canadian campus housing professionals have relied on US research findings to prove the value of residence,” says Weppler. “It is great that findings from Canadian universities can add to the knowledge we have about the benefits of living in residence.”

“The true value of our participation in this research is the opportunity to tell our story in a different way,” adds Christopher Lengyell, Acting Director of Student Housing & Residence Life at University of Toronto Mississauga. “The ability to identify and share positive outcomes, while also providing insight as to where we should continue to focus our attention, is key to the continued evolution of on-campus housing in Canada.”

For this project, Academica Group worked with the University of British Columbia, University of Guelph, University of Toronto Mississauga, University of Waterloo, and Western University to study students who lived on and off campus between 2008 and 2013 (See Notes). This research was funded in part by the Ontario Association of College and University Housing Officers (OACUHO), the Association of College and University Housing Officers—International (ACUHO-I), and the ACUHO-I Foundation.

“So what exactly did the study tell us?” you might ask.  

The Benefits

For starters, the study found that students who lived in residence in their first year had higher GPAs than those that didn’t (2.6 compared to 2.5, respectively). While this difference is small, the advantage was present even after the study controlled for factors such as incoming high school GPA, gender, faculty of study, age, international/domestic, and cohort year.
Students who lived in residence in their first year also had a higher chance of remaining enrolled into their second year and going on to graduate, and the difference here was substantial. 

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Students who lived in residence were about 50% less likely to drop out or not return for a second year compared to those who lived off campus (6.9% not retained vs. 10.2% not retained, respectively). Students who lived in residence in first year also had a 79.3% overall graduation rate compared to a 72.6% graduation rate for those who lived off-campus. 

It’s important to note that the advantages of living in residence held up after the study controlled for the variables already mentioned, which is good news not only for supporters of on-campus housing, but those who are invested in student retention and success. 

For Weppler, the study’s results help confirm what many housing professionals have known for some time: “This research gives us data-driven evidence that reinforces what we know from experience … Living in a university residence improves our student’s learning and development.”

It should also be noted that while the study found that living in residence had clear academic benefits for all students who lived on campus, these benefits were even more pronounced for international students.

The benefits of living in residence were not the only theme uncovered by the research. What also emerged was a notable shift in the types of residence students are living in. 

Watch out, traditional housing

Traditional-style residences still reign supreme when it comes to the most common forms of on-campus units, yet the popularity of hybrid and connected units is growing at a rate that should make institutions take notice.  

Among the five universities studied, 64% of first-year students living in residence lived in traditional units, followed by suite/apartment style units (22%), hybrid/connected units (10%), and townhouses (4%).

But even though traditional housing might remain most common, looking at the results over the five-year period of the study reveals that this dominant form of unit is beginning to decline.
Between 2008 and 2013, the percentage of first-year students living in traditional residences dropped from 69% to 59%. The percentage living in hybrid and connected units, on the other hand, rose substantially over this same period, from 7% of first-year residence students in 2008 to 15% in 2013. 

Finally, the study showed that institutions may need to continue expanding their residence offerings, as the universities studied saw a 19% increase over five years in the number of full-time first-year students living in residence. The rise in the overall proportion of students living in residence was more modest, but still an increase from 62% in 2008 to 65% in 2013.  

Looking Ahead

Of course, as with any research, there are limitations to this study. For example, there may be other variables that are related to both living in residence and the student outcomes studied that are not available in administrative data and thus not available to this study. Similarly, there are likely benefits to living in residence that are beyond what we can speak to with the available data. 

The study’s principal investigator and VP Research at Academica Group, Dr. Julie Peters, has noted three important research questions that could build on the value of this work: 1) do these findings hold for a broader sample of institutions?; 2) are there additional important outcomes associated with residence life, such as student satisfaction or engagement, that will help shed light on these findings?; and 3) can we better understand and measure the links between the residence experience and observed benefits so that institutions can better target residence program design resources? 

Takeaways

Overall, this study reveals four key findings, which are:

  • Living in residence during the first year of university study has positive effects on students’ GPAs, retention to second year, and persistence to graduation
  • The benefits of living in residence in first year are magnified for international students
  • The dominance of traditional-style housing units is being eroded, especially by the upstart hybrid/connected unit. 
  • The proportion of first-year students living in residence is growing.

Notes:

  1. The study population was all first-year, full-time undergraduate students who started university at one of the five participating institutions in September between 2008 and 2013.
  2. This research was funded in part by the Association of College and University Housing Officers - International and the ACUHO-I Foundation to improve our understanding of the housing and residence life profession.

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