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The History of Overcrowded College Dorms

Mary Lee Schott

Each year it seems new headlines arise touting the plight of displaced college students due to over-enrollment and over-sold beds on university campuses across the United States. Although this condition is often temporary, it doesn’t do much to calm the frustration felt by all. With student success at the core of every higher education institution’s strategic mission, on-campus housing remains a vital link in the chain of that success.  As such, it is critical to employ consistent strategies to ease the pain of the annual last-minute housing drama.

Despite how it may feel, the news that incoming college first-years face a housing shortage isn’t new at all. Headlines detailing colleges’ ongoing struggle to find rooms have been seen as far back as 1945. These rather historic headlines and captions decrying overcrowded college dorms could easily be mistaken as excerpts from today’s myriad newsfeeds. Provisional off-campus accommodations such as trailers, apartment houses, gymnasiums, and YMCAs; and on-campus conversions of existing double rooms to triples and temporary cots being placed in lounges, kitchens and recreation rooms are all measures that historically have been, and continue to be, taken to ensure heads are on pillows when the fall semester commences.

Historic newspaper clipping details overcrowded college dorms.

News headlines as far back as the 1940s call attention to overcrowded university housing.

Historically, on-campus dormitories in the United States were modeled after the British institutions which were developed for men only and intended to encourage a puritanical education as well as an academic one.  Cohabitating was seen as an advantage to learning and seen as “an integral part of the educational pathway.” When women began attending post-secondary institutions in the mid-19th century, they were required to live on campus and segregated from the male population on the notion that women must be regulated and protected.

As the birthrate increased, the GI Bill was introduced, and enrollments in higher education grew; more residence halls were being built to follow the growing population. Generally still separated by gender, the traditional Georgian-style, quintessential residence halls were morphing into quickly and inexpensively constructed, modernist high-rises that more often isolated students than brought them together. Foregoing that trend, today’s residence halls are far more community-oriented. Many offer living and learning centers and learning communities which architecturally organize spaces and students into smaller living units.

Living on campus has been demonstrated to develop the whole student which, at the most basic human level, includes a strong need to belong. In the past 30 years, universities have taken a cue from the numerous studies—and student input–to provide various ways to ensure this sense of belonging and enhance retention. While academic preparation is one factor in seeing students through to graduation, student perceptions of themselves and the institution are also critically important. As Nathan D. Grawe submits, students often leave a campus or college if they do not have a clear sense of belonging. Offering varying types of residence halls which include living and learning centers, residential colleges, learning communities and those themed by academic majors, cultural similarities or by students with common interests, all contribute to student success.  Students perform better when they are able to socialize and feel a sense of belonging.

It is true that record enrollments are usually a welcome bit of news for a university eco-system where every aspect of student success depends on it; from the retention of the most erudite faculty to the broad array of high-quality and sometimes extravagant amenities. However, when those spiked enrollments are unanticipated, the great intentions and hard work of the administration can be undermined by Instagram posts of crowded conditions, student-signed petitions demanding better treatment, and the inconvenience of commuting from temporary off-campus housing.

To help mitigate some of these issues it might behoove institutions to not only anticipate but to expect that these conditions will occur and to design early and accordingly. Some seemingly obvious and simple transformations to conventions still practiced by many universities might be to change to co-ed floors. Gender-specific floors preclude the placement of the next-in-line for a room if that student is of the opposite gender.  Allowing RAs and even the custodial staff to be any gender eases the rigor of this mandate.

Incorporating code-compliant, convertible spaces during the design process for the renovation or new construction of residence halls, allows for the unexpected influx or reduction of students.  Adding students to RA rooms, which are typically larger, and moving RAs to a single room, or tripling rooms which were previously doubled are other strategies often employed by Universities to accommodate more students. Upper-level students who prefer not to have a roommate are sometimes required to share a room and are typically financially compensated to alleviate the disparity.   It is not uncommon for institutions to house up to 750 extra students by exercising these strategies. Other resolutions come from matriculation: students who drop out or don’t show up free previously claimed spaces reducing overflow. Many students either drop out or don’t show up at all, allowing the over-crowding to subside as triples become doubles again and doubles become the singles those upperclassmen signed up for. Ironically, as students become settled in and like their halls and roommates—and parents like the price better—many may find that they don’t want to leave their tripled-up rooms and regular requests for triples are not uncommon.

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