Sean Studzinski and William Zeller: Residence Halls of the Future

by Katie Sloan

A Future Campus: Our Vision   


Who are we speaking to?
First and foremost, this paper is intended to be read by the planning teams for a new residence hall, to expand their vision about what a new or renovated facility could be. We intend to upend the model of heads-on-beds planning and think about the college/university experience more holistically. In light of changes in technology and pedagogy (active learning centers, adaptive learning, online courses), we believe that the traditional residence hall model is outmoded. Planners and administrators entrusted with the responsibility of developing a new building that will serve students in the future while maximizing resources must look beyond traditional examples. They will need to embrace solutions that can meet a surging demand. Undergraduate enrollment is projected to increase 14 percent from 17.3 million to 19.8 million students between 2014 and 2025 per the Department of Education.

Overview and vision

We envision a campus where the residential facilities are essentially self-contained academic enterprises that are microcosms of the larger campus community.  Teaching, learning, group and individual study, group interaction, library utilization, recreation, socialization and dining will comprise these new environments. These enhanced living learning communities will provide the type of learning experiences students will expect from a residential campus and will ultimately shape new high-impact learning environments within the host campus community and beyond.  Students will come to our campuses to obtain enhanced learning experiences above and beyond what they can obtain online.  They will seek personalized instruction from faculty designed to meet their own specific learning styles and capabilities. They will experience opportunities for developing interpersonal skills required for success in their chosen work environments after graduation. They will actively engage with experiential learning opportunities – not traditional passive classroom instruction. 

Technology has changed the way we live, the way we socialize, the way we teach and how we learn. Naturally, it’s going to transform the spaces in which students live. The transformation of higher education we are experiencing is already reshaping the residence hall as we know it. Rather than see these changes as a threat to the traditional campus residence hall, we see these changes as enhancing its role in education, ultimately resulting in the need for a residence hall of the future. Indeed, the residence hall is poised to become a new focal point for education in a world in which living and learning are closely intertwined and where technology is a tool for collaborative and personalized learning.

This paper intends to assess current trends in higher education pedagogy, technology and funding in order to describe essential elements of this residence hall of the future. Here are seven trends we foresee influencing this residence hall of the future.

Technological pressures
There are two forces applying pressure on the campus today. First, there’s technology. The attitude of students toward technology and the incorporation of technology in pedagogy is changing our campuses. A generation of students that have been brought up in a wired culture is already in college. On average, students own two to three digital wired devices. While colleges are designing classrooms that integrate this technology, we are also seeing a blurring between on-campus and distance learning. A third of students residing on campus use distance and online learning.

Meanwhile, the classroom itself is changing. The transformation is driven by changing teaching methods, augmented by technology. Active Learning Centers (ALCs) or “the flipped classroom” put hands-on, group-oriented workshops at center stage in the class — replacing the lecture and quiz format of yesteryear.  “Learning research indicates that competence is developed in active, exploratory and social settings. When participants are asked to think conceptually and critically, involving both peers and experts, learning is enriched,” writes Diana Oblinger, President Emeritus of EDUCAUSE.

While we’ve seen ALCs become popular in introductory science courses at major universities, we now see them as a pervasive model across the university. We are seeing them in high school and elementary school curricula — signaling a sea change in how we educate and how students expect to learn when they reach college. Campus and residence hall design must account for the next generation of students who have been educated in active learning STEM/STEAM environments.

Likewise, an increasing refinement of adaptive learning (which guides students through online learning based on performance) is making the integration of technology for the individual student a priority. Classrooms are being designed to integrate this adaptive technology.

In light of the preference for on-campus distance learning, the residence hall is just as likely to be a site for online adaptive learning. Similarly, bringing students together in flexible, tech-enabled spaces — ALCS — can happen at the residence hall level, integrating a diversity of disciplines, cultures and lifestyles. Hybrid courses which combine face-to-face classroom instruction with computer-based learning.

Economic pressures

Secondly, there is increasing pressure on schools to do more with less. With a significant rise in college tuition and fees over the past decade, universities are under pressure to better utilize space and to justify expenditures on space in an environment of diminished resources. Analysis of utilization rates for lecture halls have sometimes shown they are as low as 50% utilization or less. If universities are to augment and replace these facilities, they need to create spaces that are suited to professors and student’s needs, and more likely to be utilized. More traditional classrooms and lecture halls are not designed or particularly adaptable to active learning or adaptive learning methods.

With academia moving toward distance learning, an integration of technology in day-to-day learning and flipped classroom (ALCs), it’s obvious that the traditional classroom setting is suited to neither. The residence hall could be the ideal setting, providing these types of learning spaces on campus, in spaces that are flexible enough for either. These types of spaces will be informed by our work in modern urban planning. They will be campuses in which live/teach/learn/study/socialize/dining residence is in high demand. What does a RH look like that’s going to be providing these opportunities for students? That’s the big question.

New funding models for spaces

Many universities have seen their state and federal funding slashed to the bone during the previous decade. And yet, the application of technology in the real world has put new demands on these institutions. Enter the maker space: a physical location where (often self-directed) students and researchers share resources and knowledge, working on projects, designing, creating together.

Maker spaces, incubator spaces and technology labs are a new model — both in terms of funding and function. Resource conscious universities are looking for alternative delivery and see P3 partnerships on maker spaces from corporate partners as a solution. We already see them in research parks at major universities. Dell and Microsoft are among the major corporations currently sponsoring spaces at major universities. There are also significant, smaller entrepreneurial “start-ups” participating on campuses in project based learning, through integrated, rent free, university provided space. Universities such as Florida Polytechnic, University of North Texas, Texas Tech, U of Houston are among the participants providing variations in this type of learning.  Eventually, we predict, maker spaces will link to one another—connecting school to school.

These spaces are not just in science and engineering departments. Increasingly, we will see them attached to residence halls — like a convenience store run by Restaurant & Hotel Management (R&HM) students, or a retail storefront which sells a widget designed by entrepreneurial or business majors, produced and marketed.

For corporations, this is an inexpensive way to access new ideas and innovations, assess the talent and skill coming from the universities, and possibly recruit it. For universities, it provides cutting-edge practical learning environment. For students, it’s a leg up in applying what they are learning in real world environment. 

Prioritizing interpersonal skill development

There’s another dimension to preparing students to work in the real world, however, the human dimension. Employers report that only 30 percent of graduates have the teamwork skills they require upon graduation, while 64% of graduates think they do. Higher education needs to address this people skills gap. Research from 2011, led by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and published online in Personality and Social Psychology Review, found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. Almost 75 percent of students in 2011 rated themselves as less empathic than the average student 30 years previous.

Employers and parents of tech generation students are expecting that the college experience will build their interpersonal skills — and empathy. New research has shown that social learning and out-of-class learning are crucial in academic and professional success — especially fields that prize innovation. Why have a residential campus? To develop those interpersonal and social skills is one answer.

The Southwest Association of College and University Housing Officers International says “Living on campus gives students an academic edge by earning higher grades, providing opportunities for learning communities and faculty access, and promotes their future growth by helping them stay connected to the college environment.” Add developing interpersonal skills to that list and the bricks and sticks campus and residence hall is more relevant than ever.

 Living Learning Models

Campus leadership can point to Living Learning Models as residential facilities where inside and outside of class learning are integrated and fostered.  

LLMs will continue to develop as a residence hall type that address the technological and interpersonal aspects of learning. In our view, the scale of the LLM must be right-sized for the student’s life experience level. Communities of 25-30 with more traditional two-beds per room with community spaces outside the bedroom, and a community bathroom “traditional” set-up, for example, are preferred for freshmen, who are easing into college life and looking to build new relationships. Sophomores and juniors might be housed in a more semi-suite or full-suite style accommodation, which could be a combination of shared or private bedrooms but with a private bathroom, kitchenette and common space within the suite serving two to four students. While seniors and graduate students who are looking to transition to professional and/or family life, would fit better in apartment-style units with full kitchens.

Campus location of LLMs should be thoughtful. Placing freshmen closer to the academic and student life core of campus is intended to let them absorb campus traditions, participate in clubs and extracurricular activities, gaining that out-of-class experience. Older students move to the edge of campus for increased privacy or for easier access of an off-campus internship. The placement of LLMs can also be affected by their specific academic focus. An engineering-focused LLM, for example, might logically be situated near what were traditionally engineering labs and academic spaces outside the LLM.

The most successful LLMs have strong academic sponsorship. The LLM thrives when an academic department has a deep connection and sense of belonging infused in the space. Hence, another prime opportunity for the integration of maker-spaces.


To their credit, college campuses have become more diverse in recent decades, but are also the settings for recent political and social upheaval. Colleges and universities, because of their scale and sheer numbers of students, can also be places where students divide themselves by social, racial and economic lines. Even in diverse campuses, students from similar backgrounds tend to run together. But with this challenge comes an opportunity. Universities now view diversity as a desirable educational outcome.

Residence halls are now seen as important settings in nurturing empathy, understanding and in bringing diverse populations together. Schools are interested in making the campus a place where appreciation of individual differences is an outcome. They want graduates to leave with experience in how to work and interact with those different from themselves. This is ultimately why they are striving to become more diverse.

The flipside of this is that at college, expectations are high for students living away from home, typically, for the first time and tension can easily become magnified causing significant rifts in the social fabric.

Campuses need to be more intentional about spaces, staffing and scale in order to nurture social interaction across diverse groups. Part of this is the scale of residence halls, as we noted above, providing freshmen with a more intimately scaled living quarters can further the one-on-one contact that breaks down barriers.

A broad conversation that requires institutional change

The residence hall of the future brings together functions traditionally found in residence halls, classroom buildings, computer labs and in some instances recreation, parking, dining, retail and other functions. To be achieved successfully, and properly funded, the design of this residence hall will require collaboration between campus administration, residence life personnel, academic faculty and facilities managers, and even corporate partners for maker spaces and learning laboratories. Trying to integrate these functions can be a logistical and bureaucratic challenge when funding and programming is siloed by department. A lasting and permanent change in administration and funding of residence projects is a beneficial and necessary step forward in creating the residence hall of tomorrow.

What’s next?

Across most disciplines in higher education, we’re seeing a shift away from formal classroom instruction. If, as we predict, teaching and learning will become co-located in residence facilities, this will be a paradigm shift campus planners, administrators, students and professors. It also begs another kind of question. When residence halls are microcosms of a college campus, what happens in the larger surrounding campus? What’s its raison d’être? One answer, which we hope to explore in our next paper, is that the campus features sites for high-impact learning and intensive research. High-impact learning, the most effective learning, includes features we have mentioned such as team building, maker spaces and living learning models

Dr. William Zeller serves exclusively as an advisor to Scion’s clients and directs the firm’s office in southern California.  He has over 37 years of experience in residence life and housing administration, including service as director of housing and residential life on four campuses. 

Sean Studzinski serves as national project director for residence life at Stantec and has been designing residence halls for private developers and higher education clients for nearly two decades. Student housing life is shifting — and Sean has been at the forefront of these changes, having led the design and management of several complex, multi-million dollar residence facilities.

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