A Dorm By Any Other Name

Something very frequently on the mind of Virginia Tech students, faculty, and community members these days is housing. VT is currently suffering from almost comedic over-enrollment, and as a result of its policy that all first year students must live on campus, this has led to running out of dorm space and instead putting students up in hotels-turned-dorms.

Although that’s not entirely correct. VT used to have a policy that freshman must live on campus their first year, but it was lifted in light of the over-enrollment. In spite of the size of the freshman class (more than 7000 students) and the degree of over-enrollment (more than 1000), only 84 freshmen opted to live off-campus. This number seems incredibly low to me! As someone who did live on campus through my whole undergraduate career, the only reason I ever did was the proximity to my classes. If I were looking at the prospect of having to move into a hotel across town for dorm prices, I don’t think I would’ve taken that offer! It’s hard to say, though, whether there wasn’t too much pressure in the off-campus housing market to find better options off-campus here. Blacksburg is a pretty small town.

All of this has me thinking about dorms, campus living, and requisite on-campus policies for freshmen. I’ve always been of the mind, more or less, that a requisite on-campus housing policy for first year students is going to ignore the individual needs and differences between students, as with most blanket policies. Maybe students would rather have a kitchen to eat affordably or according to dietary restrictions, or they need to live somewhere more affordable, or their parents are nearby and they’d like to keep living at home. And what does anyone get out of this requirement? Is it for the students? The university? This is something I’ve never understood.

Part of the picture is that there are various social and academic outcomes that have been tied to residential college life (which I learned today). Some colleges would argue that they’re looking out for students’ best interests in keeping them on campus, although I’d argue that if that is the case they could also make them more appealing options for students–through, for example, having the dorms be the more affordable options–and accomplish the same goal a little less paternalistically.

That’s assuming, though, that because first years are required to live on campus, they would not be choosing to do so without the policy. The 84/7000+ rate from VT’s accidental case study seems to indicate otherwise. So why are students opting to live in dorms, even when they’re only dubiously “on campus”? Many of the things students from the Inn have said revolve around community, and convenience. And, in fact, many of them mentioned being the most worried on missing out on the college sense of community. So I guess students aren’t as clueless about the importance of belonging as I might’ve thought.

All of this is playing out in the context of a larger conversation about what institutions of higher education are to their students and the changing notions of In Loco Parentis, the once-abandoned and occasionally-resurfacing idea that colleges act as surrogate parents to their students and are responsible for their growth and development. I thought this was a particularly interesting little case study in that larger narrative, and you can read a little more about the In Loco Parentis relating to fraternities and sororities over at The Chronicle.

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