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Although living on campus is often promoted and viewed as an important aspect of college life and a positive way for college students to meaningfully engage with classmates of different races, nationalities, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds, a new paper says the reality at many institutions is quite the opposite.
Far from being egalitarian living spaces, many dorms are highly segregated along the very lines and backgrounds communal living was supposed to erase, according to an article on the racialization of university housing recently published in the Journal of College Student Development. The paper by Zak Foste, a professor of higher education at the University of Kansas, was based on a qualitative study he conducted that found students, resident assistants and some housing administrators at three large universities located in predominantly white communities saw certain residence halls on the campuses as inaccessible to or largely uninhabited by Black students or other students of color.
Foste interviewed nearly 70 people at all the campuses and found that there were prevailing stereotypes and perceptions about the newest, most expensive dorms on each campus as “the white dorm,” occupied by middle- and upper-class white students, and that older, neglected buildings were known to house poorer students and students of color, he said. Some of the student interviewees referred to these dorms as “the trenches, the hood, the ghetto,” Foste said.
“There were these racial meanings attached to particular buildings in ways that were seemingly natural and taken for granted to people on that campus,” he said. “You have this highly stratified system of on-campus housing.”
Foste noted that living on campus is often referred to by student affairs administrators and higher education researchers as a beneficial and even essential part of college that helps boost persistence and graduation rates. His initial goal for the study was to analyze interactions between diverse students in residence halls, “knowing that these are supposedly really important places for engagement” and that “institutions hold that up as the value” of living on campus.
Students who live in residence halls build community, are more engaged in campus life and have a sense of belonging at their college, especially if they participate in social and academic activities in residence halls, student engagement experts say. On-campus living has been repeatedly linked to successful academic outcomes, so much so that some institutions have recently moved to require sophomores to live on campus in addition to first-year students.
Nearly two-thirds of about 300 housing administrators surveyed during the 2019-20 academic year by the Association of College and University Housing Officers - International said their institutions require students to live on campus for at least one year, according to data provided by the professional association.
But Foste found that campus dorms segregated by class and race “reproduce the same types of racialized communities and neighborhoods that define students' pre-college environments” and furthered racial divisions on campus rather than encouraging students to expose themselves to new cultures and perspectives.
“The racialization of campus housing results in implicit and explicit messages about individuals’ value, worth, and belonging in particular residential spaces,” Foste wrote in the paper. “The racial ideas attached to spaces function as a means of boundary maintenance by insisting on distance from ‘the other.’”
As college administrators continue to examine how students of color are treated on their campuses and attempt to meet commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion in the wake of the racial reckoning prompted by the killing of George Floyd, the division of students by race and class in residential housing is being overlooked as a contributor to the alienation of these students, Foste said.
Lower-level residential housing staff members seemed passionate about confronting the racial stereotyping of dorms and the students who live in them, he said of interviews he conducted for the study. However, the same energy and commitment is needed but generally not found at the administrative level.
"If living on campus is to be championed as a part of the educational mission of the institution, administrators must confront the reality that in many instances, access to quality residence halls is unequal," Foste wrote.
Charlie Potts, assistant vice president for student life at Gustavus Adolphus College, a private liberal arts college in Minnesota, said such divisions can be a “huge detriment” to colleges’ goals for student engagement and belonging and diversity, equity and inclusion. Potts found the study particularly applicable to his college, where 90 percent of students live on campus. Gustavus Adolphus is currently auditing its housing policies to ensure they don't unintentionally segregate residence halls. The college also is in the process of hiring its first vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, Potts said.
“We’re trying to look at, demographically, where do our students of color choose to live, and from that, how do we have meaningful conversation about why,” Potts said. He said there are two higher-cost buildings on his campus that were identified as places students of color are less likely to live in, “But why is that?”
Potts said the college will be hosting focus groups with students of color to try to answer this question. He said he considered whether those students felt unwelcome in the residence halls because of their race, or whether the higher housing costs were a factor. He also wondered if the college's policies and procedures were creating barriers.
Foste’s study found that racial and class segregation of the dorms and racialized perceptions of certain buildings by students and staff members was in part fueled by “seemingly race-neutral” policies and practices of the institutions’ campus housing offices.
For example, administrators at one university interviewed by Foste acknowledged that white and affluent students were more likely to put deposits on housing before less affluent students or students of color, allowing wealthier students their first choice of housing. Wealthier students also had the ability to put down deposits at multiple colleges to secure living spaces before deciding where to enroll, he said.
Shonda Goward, director of the student center for academic achievement at California State University, East Bay, and co-chair of the Socioeconomic and Class Issues Knowledge Community for NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said low-income students can often be delayed in putting down deposits because they are waiting to compare financial aid packages from the colleges they are admitted to.
Under a deposit-first, selection-first model, early-decision students would also be prioritized to select on-campus housing before general-admission students, Goward said. Studies of early-decision applicants have shown that students whose families make less than $50,000 per year are half as likely as to apply for early decision compared to students from families who make more than $250,000 per year because of wealthy students' access to college admissions counselors. Goward said these factors create an exclusionary housing system that favors one group and penalizes another.
“These are measures that institutions are using because housing is a revenue generator,” Goward said. “You want to lock in those early-decision tuition and housing dollars.”
Foste said another contributing factor was the “astonishing” price differences between the newer and elaborate residence halls versus the older and worn buildings. He interviewed administrators at one campus who identified a nicer and newer residential building as an intentional recruitment tool to attract rich students.
Potts sees the socioeconomic segregation of dorms as a “by-product” of colleges historically investing energy and resources to appeal to certain customers, while neglecting overall student needs, especially those of students who can’t afford luxury residence halls.
“We see students as customers more than students at some times,” Potts said. “I think of all the students on our campus who don’t need shiny, new and expensive. They just need a bed. We lose sight that those students are customers, too.”
However, the racialization of dorms in Foste’s study were also due in part to the choices of students of color, he said. Though the students felt that certain predominantly white residence halls were inaccessible to them, they also found value and built community in the dorms that were known as spaces for students of color, Foste said. Interviewees felt more at home in these spaces and less subject to microaggressions or stares from white peers, which they would be more likely to be subjected to in dorms labeled as rich and white, he said.
Goward said this is an example of “self-preservation” -- students of color would rather separate from a majority-white student space than have to validate their existence on campus in their living space. Administrators need to start asking why campus housing segregation is occurring at their institutions and whether it is due to specific policies or a racially hostile climate on campus, she said.
“Sometimes they’ll self-segregate, because who wants to fight racialized battles at home? At the end of the day, that’s what residence halls are,” Goward said. “No one wants to do that work all day in the classroom and then get home and do that.”