The value of adding housing to community college campuses lies not in the buildings but in the way the presence of resident students enriches the campus culture, says David Mathews, president of Southwestern Michigan College, in Dowagiac, Michigan.
Mathews spearheaded the $15 million project to build the college’s first residence hall, in 2009, followed by a second facility in 2010 and a third in 2012. All three residence halls opened to full capacity, with 130 students each. A couple of years after the college first offered housing, officials began to see the academic performance of resident students surpass that of students who were commuting.
About a quarter of two-year U.S. colleges offer on-campus housing, according to an AACC report. Southwestern Michigan is one of 43 colleges that added dorms between 2000 and 2010.
In 2007, Southwestern Michigan did a survey of high school juniors living within a 30-minute drive from the college, asking how likely they were to attend. The poll included questions to determine whether the addition of on-campus housing would influence the decision. When Mathews looked at the raw data, he discovered that the number of respondents saying they would certainly or most likely attend Southwestern Michigan College if it had on-campus housing was more than double the number who said they’d be interested without a dorm.
With survey respondents showing such strong interest, Mathews won approval from the college’s board of trustees to build a dorm and convert an old gymnasium into a student activity center. The fact that the college is located in a rural area with relatively few commercial apartments available also helped make the case for a dorm.
Higher rates of completion?
While national data indicate that residential college students have higher rates of persistence and completion than commuters do, officials at Southwestern Michigan didn’t immediately see those kinds of results. Mathews says part of the reason may be that in the first year of having a residence hall, the college drew a mixed bag of freshman enrollees — including some who may have been more interested in getting out of their parents’ home than in committing to their studies.
“We had to put a lot of intervention strategies in place,” Mathews says. “Now, our resident students outperform our commuting students.”
Recent graduation rates at another community college, which has a much longer history of on-campus housing, highlight a notable difference between residents and commuters: Itawamba Community College, with campuses in both Fulton and Tupelo, Mississippi, has had residence halls since the institution first opened as an agricultural high school in 1948. There is no housing on the Tupelo campus, but students who are enrolled at Tupelo can live in one of the seven residence halls at Fulton. The campuses are about 20 minutes apart, and the school provides a free shuttle service.
Of the students who started at Itawamba in fall 2009, 46.2 percent of those living in dorms graduated by spring 2012 or earlier, compared with 23.5 percent of commuting students. Just over 37 percent of resident students entering in fall 2010 graduated within the same time frame, versus 22.6 percent of commuters. For students entering in fall 2011, the on-time graduation rates were 46.5 percent for residents, 25.4 percent for commuters.
Seeing the value of on-campus housing
Albert “Buddy” Collins, vice president of student services at Itawamba, says the numbers don’t necessarily mean that all of the difference can be attributed to on-campus housing. But along with the college’s student success centers, writing labs and other services available to all students, the residents are getting something extra.
“Being in the residence halls does add some advantages of becoming more connected to the college and part of the college culture,” Collins says.
That’s the way Mathews sees it, too. “So many of my peers misunderstand,” he says. “This is not about student housing; it’s about student life.”
While only 390 students live on campus, Mathews says Southwestern Michigan College’s entire student body of 2,700 benefits in some way from their presence. For instance, resident students made it more feasible for campus organizations to present activities like dances and speaker series by providing a core group of students who can easily attend those events.
Mathews remembers his own undergraduate experience as being “life-changing” and “transformative,” with many of the most significant events occurring outside the classroom. He believes it’s critical to offer the same kind of experience to community college students, especially in a state like Michigan, which was hit hard by the recession, and where many parents, still struggling to recover, can’t afford the cost of a state university.
“Our ability to provide the total college life experience, with community college tuition rates, has been very important for our community,” Mathews says.
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