The Academic and Residential Complex at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Today’s Students Are Different — Is Your Housing?

by Katie Sloan

Most student housing has seen multiple generations on many campuses. Here’s a look at the past three generations and how housing built for those generations will adapt to the needs and wants of Generation Z — the generation that’s now headed to campus. 

Generational Overview

Generation X was in college between 1983 and 2002. During this timeframe, the internet barely existed. Music transitioned from cassette tapes to CDs, and mobile phones went from being something that only the elite could afford to common household devices. Researching a college meant asking a high school counselor, talking to your family/friends, recruiters, or going to the library.

Doug Neri

Doug Neri, Associate Principal, GFF.

Millennials were in college between 1999 to 2018. This was the time when use of the internet exploded, “googling” became a verb, augmented reality was tried, failed, and came back, social media took off, tablets and smart phones became attached to us, so did Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. Amazon was born, Facebook became a means of keeping up with friends and family, as were many other internet-based businesses and social media sites. Generation Z grew up during this time.  

Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2012) students have replaced Generation X and Millennials on college campuses and they bring very different perspectives on every aspect of college life.

Seeking an enhanced college experience, Generation X and millennials ignited an “amenities arms race” across college campuses resulting in lazy river water features, indoor rock-climbing walls, and rooftop pools. Those amenities have contributed to increased tuition and student fees, which has only assisted in making a college education financially unattainable for many families.

Coming of age during the height of the recession, Generation Z students watched their families struggle with financial hardships like joblessness and upside-down mortgages. For them, college isn’t just about four years of experience — although they’re certainly interested in what it has to offer. Instead, they consider college a means to an end: an investment in their future careers. 

“Students are overwhelmed by the cost,” explained Corey Seemiller, who co-authored the book, Generation Z Goes to College, with Meghan Grace. “They still see value in a college education, but they are doing a cost-benefit analysis to determine if what they will pay is worth the investment.”

Generation Z students are much more budget-conscious and are sensitive to the costs of a college education, particularly housing. They view most existing campus housing options as obsolete and not capable of supporting the living/learning lifestyle they believe is critical to developing the skill sets required for their future success. 

Campus Housing Design Drivers

As the needs of students evolve, it is imperative that campus housing options reflect their changing needs. There are multiple design drivers that impact the location, configuration, and programming of campus housing solutions for the new Generation Z students. 

Encouraging Socialization

Generation Z is the world’s first generation of “digital natives” who do not know a world before the internet. Their lives are permeated by technology and social media, impacting how they interact with each other and the world around them.

Conducted annually, the 2017 American Freshman Survey reported that more than half (50.9 percent) of all freshman year college students spent six or more hours per week on social media during their last year of high school, up 10 percentage points from the 2016 survey and more than 30 percentage points higher than when the question was first asked a decade ago (18.9 percent in 2007). However, it is important to note that utilizing social media did not completely replace face-to-face interaction as 58.4 percent of students in 2017 spent six or more hours socializing in person during their last year of high school.

This duality of interaction needs to be taken into consideration when designing campus housing. From a socialization standpoint, freshmen need more face-to-face interaction in order to develop peer support groups. They benefit from residence halls that offer a balance between private bedrooms and communal gathering areas. As students get older and their peer groups are established, they often prefer apartment-style living environments that offer increased privacy. 

Residential College House Model

Recognizing the importance of socialization during the first year of school, many colleges require freshman students to live in dorms with public socialization areas and take their meals in common dining halls to encourage new friendships and shared experiences. Understanding that housing is an important social anchor, several U.S. universities have emulated the residential college system used at the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge in England and at Harvard and Yale in the U.S. where students are grouped by either field of study or class year, and reside in the same college hall for multiple years. Harvard’s College House system is one of the university’s best-known traditions. Returning sophomores are placed into one of Harvard’s 12 houses. Each house accommodates between 350 and 500 students and helps create a close-knit community within the broader university. 

Proximity to Campus Core

The Summit at University City.

The Summit at University City, serving students attending Drexel University in Philadelphia, is owned and managed by American Campus Communities. The community offers shared amenities including a 24-hour academic success center and group and private study lounges. (Image courtesy of American Campus Communities)

Everyone is familiar with the real estate adage: Location. Location. Location. This is especially relevant in campus housing, as proximity to the campus core is considered prime real estate. The closer student housing is to the center of campus, the less need for added amenities, as the greatest perk is being “in the middle of all the action.” Student housing placed further from the campus core often requires additional amenities, such as larger workout facilities, additional food service options, and group study spaces to entice students to reside further from the center of campus. The question becomes, how many amenities should there be and what is the impact of those amenities on the cost of living there? Every university and every developer takes a different approach.  Generally speaking, there is a growing trend of universities (within the past 20 years) beginning to discuss and implement campus wide student affairs programs that integrate housing into the model. One may actually be able to tie this to the rise in P3/outside developers working on campus, but I’ve never seen a study that actually tied the two together. Developers, as a whole, tend to ask more questions as the housing is the product as opposed to the education being their product, so they are much more concerned with the total student experience. 

Amenity Trend Shift

There is a shift occurring from fun amenity spaces, such as water parks, movie theaters, and game rooms to study, community, gathering, and health and wellness spaces due, in large part, to evolving student demand. Many colleges give students the opportunity to vote on fees earmarked for new construction projects. In the past, most of these projects were overwhelmingly approved by students. However, that trend may be changing as Generation Z students — with their focus on ensuring a positive ROI from their tuition dollar — leave their mark on college campuses. A recent Forbes article cited the following examples: 

  • University of Kansas students rejected a $50/semester fee increase for a $45 million student center renovation.
  • At Iowa State University, students gave the thumbs-down to a $65 million expansion of the campus union that would have required an annual $72 increase.
  • Cal Poly students nixed a $597/year fee to expand their University Union.
  • By a margin of more than 2:1, University of Texas at San Antonio students voted down a fee increase, much of which would have been used to spruce up athletic facilities.

Decreased state funding for higher education, coupled with skyrocketing tuition required to close looming budget gaps, have helped make students more cost conscious about why they are going to school and signals a shift in student priorities from amenities to academics.

Strategies & Solutions

Attention to the programming and early design phases are critical to ensuring that campus housing offerings meet the changing requirements of not only Generation Z students, but for future students, as well. Finding the right balance between private “me” space and open community “we” spaces, that support serendipitous connections, need to be addressed early in the process. It is important to understand the elements that make a space feel comfortable and inviting. 

Group Metrics

Begin by identifying the group metrics for a particular campus housing environment. A good metric to start with is to have a resident advisor (RA) for every 20 to 30 students, with 20 to 25 being an optimal ratio. By clearly defining the RA-to-student ratio, the designer can then develop floor plan options that provide space for social interaction while incorporating more private areas that can be personalized to feel more like home.

Understanding Impact of Space on Socialization

Proxemics, a term coined by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in 1963, is the study and application of personal space zones and how individuals use space and distance to communicate. Hall’s book, The Hidden Dimension, defined four spatial body zones used by Americans to communicate and define relationships.

Social distance between people is reliably correlated with physical distance. Hall’s research helps explain group dynamics within social spaces — if the spaces are too large, students will spread out; they will inherently stand far away from each other due to social distances. If a space is too small, students will get defensive and withdraw. Understanding and applying these concepts to campus housing design can help educators navigate and balance the different types of spaces required to support both socialization and to ensure privacy.

  • The intimate zone, touching to one and one-half feet between people, is usually reserved for family and close friends. There are exceptions, like public elevators where space is less available, and people make allowances for short periods of time. 
  • The personal zone extends from one and one-half to four feet and represents the distance between two people having a conversation. 
  • The social zone extends from four to 12 feet and is used between people who know each other socially, but not personally. 
  • The public zone is the most formal, and it extends from 12 to 25 feet. This is the zone reserved for formal occasions in reception halls but also exists in lobbies and waiting areas. 

Hall did not mean for these measurements to be strict guidelines that translate precisely to human behavior, but rather a system for gauging how to effectively design environments that support specific interaction and socialization. That said, you can also think of these distances as ‘levels of spatial friction.’ The closer you are together, the more friction you have, the more of a connection you make, but also the more stressful it is.  Providing gigantic spaces for only a few people to create close connections is unsuccessful.  Providing very small spaces for people that are complete strangers also is unsuccessful because you can’t force people to connect.  There has to be a balance of space types and programs for students to interact and create lasting bonds.

Options. Options. Options

Today’s college experience is different from that of a decade ago, which was different than the decade before that, and before that. Technology today and the instant connectivity offered by 24/7 social media has resulted in a proliferation of different learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.) with an emphasis on experienced-based learning, group work projects, and social interaction. In addition, the higher education experience is no longer associated with a specific building type. Today, students can catch a bite in cafes and coffee houses located in libraries, take classes in residence halls and meet for group projects in student unions that often double as wellness and fitness centers. 

As a result, educators need to allocate more square footage in housing facilities that are not living/sleeping areas and can be easily reconfigured to support different group needs for studying and socializing. Multiple sizes and types are particularly important in larger buildings and high-rise housing to encourage serendipitous interaction. Instead of compartmentalizing spaces by type, i.e., TV/media room, game room with pool table and a kitchen, consider combining several activities in a larger space that is zoned by activity to promote a more social experience. 

Importance of Proportion

What do the pyramids of Giza and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa have in common with Twitter and Pepsi? Quick answer: They are all designed using the golden ratio. The golden ratio is a mathematical ratio that translates to roughly a 1/3 to 2/3 proportion that is commonly found in nature and architecture and is aesthetically pleasing. Studies have shown that, when it comes to conventional attractiveness, we subconsciously gravitate towards others whose proportions most closely conform to the golden ratio.

When designing any space, including campus housing, if the goal is to encourage connectivity and community, the golden ratio and proportion is critically important. A square room feels uncomfortable and is difficult to zone. However, a room designed using the golden ratio and featuring modular furniture that can be easily reconfigured to create study, sleep, and conversation areas provides each resident the opportunity to personalize their space. 

Proportion Applies to Height

If you want to encourage socialization, too low of ceilings make a room feel cramped and uncomfortable, too high of ceilings make a room feel cold and diminishing, so community spaces should feature ceiling heights that provide enough “breathing space” without being too high, a warm porridge if you will. Again, the golden ratio is a good guideline to follow for height as well. The key being a specific feeling for a specific use.  Areas like vestibules, kitchens, bathrooms can have lower ceiling heights, since these are more transient areas and people do not gather in these spaces. 

Human Appeal in Scale

Proportion and scale are important in the exterior design of campus housing facilities as well. While high rise towers may be cost efficient and accommodate large numbers of students, applied in the wrong setting or at the wrong scale they can appear uncomfortable, imposing and institutional. The same is true for four to five-story buildings, although they can be easily configured as residential neighborhoods, in the wrong setting their lack of density can be jarring By incorporating comfortable walking distances between buildings and including pathways with trees and places to sit, the design encourages socialization and interaction because if feels more like home. 

Light It Up

Unfortunately, other than security lighting, architectural exterior lighting is one of the first things to get value engineered out of the design of student housing projects. However, living spaces come to life in the late afternoon and early evenings, as students return from class and recreational activities. Given the fact that the academic school year includes some of the shortest days of the year, the role of lighting goes beyond just interior lighting. Well lit-lobbies and common areas glow at night and act as inviting beacons that optimize appeal and visually connect with visitors approaching the building. 


The college experience is not just rooted in academics, it is also a personal journey as students transition into adults and learn how to become members of a larger connected community. A significant portion of their journey occurs outside of the traditional classroom environment. For this reason, the residential experience is extremely important to a successful education. As student demographics, living preferences and technology evolve, so must the student housing stock your institution offers. SHB

— Doug Neri, AIA, NCARB, is associate principal and director of education practice with GFF.  He can be reached at [email protected].

This article originally ran in the March/April 2020 issue of Student Housing Business magazine. 

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