The Stuff That Home is Made Of

by Katie Sloan

The likelihood that a student will graduate can be closely related to residence life programming at student housing companies.

Kim Rubenstein

The first year of college for students living in residential communities is accompanied by quantum changes in their emerging adult life. Many are moving away from their families for the first time, taking responsibility for their academic performance and personal health and well-being.

As young adults, these students may be held accountable for time management, finances and learning to live with a stranger or group of strangers in close quarters. These and other new experiences will impact adjustment and feelings of connection within living and academic environments. While it certainly is an exciting time, students commonly experience a conflict between establishing successful study habits and navigating new-found social freedom.

Those students who become involved early in residential life and other campus activities tend to experience great benefit from a sense of community and connectedness. On the other hand, when the social and academic expectations of incoming students are not met, the students are placed at higher risk for attrition prior to the commencement of their second year.

Further, research of college retention and graduation rates, suggests that the primary factor directly impacting whether a student stays in college and graduates is the quality of the interaction and/or the perception of social support. The types of relationship experiences may include forming a meaningful connection with a concerned person in the residential community, peers, mentors, as well as active participation in clubs and organizations.

It is with this in mind that colleges and universities are investing resources in the engagement of students earlier than ever before. The reason is clear; when students believe that a relationship with the school has been established, they feel as if the school has invited them to be a member of their community.

It is equally important that student housing communities, regardless of whether they are on- or off- campus, also strive to create an environment in which students feel integrated into the academic community at large.

Commercial student housing communities can offer students additional services aside from simply creating an environment of shared housing. In an increasingly competitive industry, the question of how one housing community differentiates itself from other housing options is important to consider. Aside from the offerings of an enhanced physical environment, questions such as what types of supportive services can be offered and what early key relationships can be established should be addressed in order to promote a social experience that will contribute to the student’s desire for connection and purpose.

One of the conflicts among those who examine issues of student engagement relates to whether more of the responsibility for student/institution integration should fall to the institution, rather than to the student. This conflict calls into question whether it’s the student who needs to be integrated into college or the institution that needs transformation to fit today’s student. The assumption built into this conflict is that there are not other important systems in which incoming students live, which considering housing options today, begs housing companies to consider themselves an important piece of the overall student experience. Given that students spend approximately 18 hours a week in class and 12 hours engaged in study, the remainder of time is spent between social and job-related experience.

Campus housing communities that emphasize residence life are well positioned to support student persistence and success. While the important task of managing daily operations of facilities may serve to enhance the student experience of their physical environment, what types of opportunities are being created to serve the student’s emotional and social needs and expectations?

How well do housing communities know their residents? What efforts are being made to engage students in creating a sense of community that students can not only call home, but feel at as if they are home? When a student accepts admission to a college or university, he or she is seeking a connection, which is in essence a feeling. Students want to feel as if what is important to them is also important to the school. Therefore, whether or not it’s recognized by the housing community, students are looking to confirm their expectation of creating a new sense of home. What exactly does this mean?

According to Katy Hopkins of U.S. News and World Report Weekly (2011), the top five ways a student (particularly if they live off campus) can feel as if they are, “at home” on campus include:

1) Becoming Involved – such as joining a club or organization;
2) Setting Expectations – such as creating an environment in which study and living habits will help students in their process of adjustment;
3) Seeking Out Resources – such as study buddies or peers for carpools;
4) Getting Mentors – connect with other students, such as seasoned students, which can be supported through a strong relationship advisor (or residential staff member);
5) Stepping Outside of Comfort Zone – such as finding ways to establish relationships to establish a sense of community.

Taken together as a whole, these five factors are of the utmost importance. Each creates a sense of connection to help support students’ appetite for autonomy that can enhance the student experience, helping to confirm they’ve made the right choice, not just for where they attend school, but for where they choose to call home.

As the student housing market trends toward increasing rates of growth, students will continue to have more choices. Housing communities should not place themselves in a position to react to student expectations; instead, they should be anticipating these needs. Offering early intervention services that facilitate a student’s adjustment to college supports both the economic and emotional investment by the student, which can result in less turnover and increased commitment to stay within the housing community which will best meet their social and emotional needs.

Ultimately, the job of the private residential community is not to create a culture of “heads and beds.” The objective should be to create a true experience of community, which is most easily established by making an early connection with incoming students. This is the stuff home is made of.

 — Kim C. Rubenstein, Psy.D., is the co-founder and chief research and product officer for Compatibility, a company that develops and delivers proprietary technology solutions via web-based software to help roommates.


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