Battling the Sophomore Slump

Michigan State will require students to live on campus for two years. Higher ed experts say it will lead to higher persistence rates. Students say it will cost them more and reduce their independence.

January 5, 2021
 
Michigan State University Residence Education and Housing Services

Michigan State University officials are restoring a requirement that first- and second-year students live on campus, a decision that was praised by student success experts but condemned by the students themselves.

The university and experts on the sophomore and on-campus student experience said the decision, announced last month, is backed by research that shows students graduate from Michigan State at higher rates when they spend their second year living on campus.

Sophomore year is a formative time for interpersonal relationships and personal and career development, and the type of support colleges provide students during this time can make or break a student’s education, said Molly Schaller, a higher education professor at Saint Louis University who studies college sophomores.

“Academic self-efficacy is lowest during the sophomore year,” Schaller said, and students are questioning themselves, their friendships and what major they want to pursue. Navigating living off campus for the first time while “questioning your college career” is difficult and makes a sophomore on-campus living requirement a “focal point” for success, she said.

Michigan State students and alumni aren't buying that reasoning. Their reactions on Twitter were uniformly disparaging of the housing policy change. They called it a “money grab” and a way for the university to recoup revenue lost as a result of partial housing refunds in spring 2020 and canceled student housing contracts ahead of the fall 2020 semester after the East Lansing campus closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The whole thing is a very desperate grab at cash and continues to prove just how much universities are business before they are educational institutions,” said Rumana Uddin, who graduated over the summer. “They’ve obviously taken a financial hit since the pandemic started, so their solution is to burden their incoming students and their families and then mask it by saying it’s for their benefit.”

Vennie Gore, senior vice president for Auxiliary Enterprises, the facilities development and operations offices that oversee Residential and Hospitality Services, said the plan to require sophomores to live on campus has been in the works for “many years” and predates the pandemic. But he and other university officials said the pandemic has indeed hurt the institution financially, as it has many other colleges and universities across the country, and led to “massive furloughs and layoffs” of residential and hospitality staff members.

About 840 full-time staff members and 400 part-time student workers in the division have been furloughed since the start of the pandemic, Kat Cooper, a spokesperson for the division, wrote in an email.

A "handful" of staff members currently furloughed are "aware that their job will not exist once everyone is returned," she wrote.

Gore said in an email that the financial outlook for the Auxiliary Enterprise group is “weak” going into 2021. The new requirement will increase net revenue for the group by nearly 6 percent in fall 2022, when the first cohort of students is required to live on campus as sophomores, Gore said.

“We will likely see more of a smoothing of revenue and staffing, rather than a large increase,” he said.

Mark Largent, associate provost for undergraduate education and dean of undergraduate studies, called the pandemic and resulting cancellation of in-person classes and services a "massive disruption" to Auxiliary Enterprises. But the interruption of residence life services and employee cutbacks allow officials to rebuild the staff and prepare to launch the new living requirement, Largent said.

"The disruption gives us the opportunity to make these choices," he said. "There’s this really brilliant opportunity to rebuild our residential and hospitality services."

Largent said the new requirement is largely based on university research that clearly suggests students are more likely to graduate from Michigan State if they live on campus their sophomore year. The university currently enforces a first-year on-campus living requirement, but university research on graduation rates found that undergraduates who continued to live on campus a second year had a 2.5-percentage-point higher graduation rate than those who did not, according to a press release about the new living requirement.

The idea is to expand its current first-year on-campus living, or “neighborhood” experience, a program that splits the large land-grant university into five separate communities, where students live in residence halls and have direct access to academic support and social services located nearby, Largent said. The sophomore campus program will look similar but will be tailored to the hurdles that students face during their second year of college, such as choosing a major, developing a plan for graduation and having a “sense of belonging” at the university, Largent said.

“If you can get them through those first two years with academic and social support, we know we can graduate most of them” at a rate near those seen at Ivy League institutions, Largent said.

“We were surprised to find that the students who left after first and second year had almost identical GPAs as those who didn’t leave,” Largent said. “It’s really not just the grades. It’s a combination of their academic, social and culture experiences on campus.”

Findings by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research also show that nationally, students who live on campus during their sophomore year have a higher persistence rate -- by about two to three percentage points -- than those who live off campus that year, said Kevin Fosnacht, research project associate for the National Survey of Student Engagement, a project of the center.

Fosnacht and Robert Gonyea, associate director of the center, have been analyzing spring to fall semester persistence, or the dropout rates of undergraduates, using the student engagement survey responses and enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse. Their research, funded by a 2017 grant from the Association of College and University Housing Officers - International, or ACUHO-I, suggests first-year students benefit from participating in educational activities and developing “sense of a supportive environment on campus,” Fosnacht said. But for sophomores, higher persistence rates are “directly attributable to where students live,” he said.

“In the sophomore year it’s not what they do, it’s where they live,” he said.

Gonyea said a small percentage point improvement in graduation rates may not sound dramatic, but for Michigan State, which enrolled nearly 38,500 undergraduates in fall 2020, a small increase could mean “a huge financial benefit” for the university. More students enrolling at Michigan State for another year, instead of dropping out, means more tuition dollars for the university, Fosnacht said.

Cooper, the university spokesperson, noted in the press release that higher persistence and graduation rates among undergraduates could also reduce the amount they spend on college over all, if they take less time to graduate.

Two-year on-campus living requirements aren't new. About one-fifth of institutions surveyed mandated that students live on campus during both their first and second years as of the 2019-20 academic year, according to an annual survey by ACUHO-I that gathered responses from nearly 300 colleges and universities. Largent said Michigan State’s model was inspired by Ohio State University, which started a similar program for sophomores in 2016.

Fosnacht said interest in this model is growing, particularly among institutions in the Big Ten, which are generally “sprawling” residential research universities.

“I know it’s of interest here at Indiana,” he said. “This is going to be a trend, but I don’t think there’s a stampede yet.”

Current and incoming students at Michigan State are not excited about being forced to live on campus for an additional year, and many think the requirement will increase, not decrease the overall costs of attending college.

The General Assembly of the Associated Students of Michigan State University, a representative student government body, said in a Dec. 11 statement that they are “disappointed and disheartened” that student government leaders were not included in discussions leading up to the new requirement announcement. They urged the university to make several changes to reduce the costs of living on campus for an additional year, such as reducing the cost of on-campus housing, creating an option to opt out of meal plans and providing a timeline for renovations to residence halls.

“We respectfully request MSU reconsider this decision and allow student voices to be heard,” the statement said. “The two-year housing reinstatement comes during a time of immense financial struggles and hardships. A decision of this magnitude should have been carefully thought out with input from all parties involved.”

There are some exceptions to the housing requirement, such as if students live in approved fraternity or sorority housing, live within 40 miles of the university or are older than 20 when they start their sophomore year, Largent said.

Gore, the Auxiliary Enterprises official, said the student assembly was consulted during the last academic year and “student leaders are very much being engaged” in conversations about how the university will roll out the housing program. The university plans to prioritize renovations of the oldest residence halls on campus, but due to the pandemic “all our current plans need to be re-evaluated and rescheduled,” Gore said.

Gabe Singer, a Michigan high school senior who will be attending the university next fall, said he felt “blindsided” by the new rule. He’s less concerned about the cost and more about the increased independence students have living off campus, including the ability to choose roommates and not be supervised by a resident assistant. The residential community for business students that Singer applied to live in further limits his roommate options, he said.

“They force you into a specific dorm hall with someone else from the same community,” Singer said. “I was a little disappointed when I heard about it.”

Rosemary Kuerbitz, a 2019 graduate of Michigan State who is now a law student at the university, recalled the “miserable” experience she had living in a residence hall on campus. Kuerbitz’s first roommate invited her boyfriend to live with them without Kuerbitz's consent. Kuerbitz also said an ex-boyfriend, who was not a Michigan State student, was able to get access to her dorm room due to a lack of security in the residence hall. Kuerbitz said she’s a proponent of student choice, especially for those who prefer to live by themselves in an off-campus apartment rather than pay more for a single room on campus.

“I don’t think that’s as desirable or fair,” she said. “I feel scared for people who have bad situations, people after them or who just want to be alone. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting a roommate. They say it’s important and such a huge life experience, but is it, though?”

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