Are Apartment-Style Residences Really Better than Traditional Corridor Dorms?

Although a recent study suggests that traditional dorms with hall baths might be better than new apartment-style residence halls in promoting strong connections and higher GPAs, the study does not take into account the positive impact that living/learning programs provide in the newer residences.

The study, summarized in an Inside Higher Ed article, found that the first-semester, first-year GPAs of African American students at an anonymous liberal arts college in the South were higher (2.3 vs 1.9) for students in traditional dorms. The same was true for white students but the improvement was minor (2.9 vs 2.8). The four-year study involved 5,538 students, including 800 African American students.

Accepting the premise that more social interaction enhances a sense of belonging and that this leads to improved academic performance, the study seems to favor traditional dorms that guarantee a high degree of social contact. But the idea that students in apartment-style (or suite-style) residence halls live in relative isolation does not fully consider that in newer honors living/learning residence halls, most of which are suite-style, students not only associate with a ready-made cohort of similar residents but they have a full range of honors programming available to them.

These include honors social activities within the dorm; faculty and outside speakers for honors students; access to in-depth research and faculty support; honors study-abroad programs; and smaller classes in the first year.

Non-honors living/learning communities such as those, notably, at Michigan State University, provide subject-area or cultural themes that bring students together in their residence community.

It is also true that traditional residence halls can offer living/learning programs. A  better way to analyze the impact of traditional and suite-style dorms on student socialization and academic performance would be to compare GPAs between students in traditional living/learning dorms and students in suite-style dorms with living/learning programs.

A few honors colleges and programs have purposely built new residences that are traditional in design, based on the premise that they are more effective in promoting collegiality and a sense of belonging. For parents and prospective students, especially those looking at honors programs, it would be a good idea to consider the programming and the design and amenities of residence halls, in the order of importance to you.

The Inside Higher Ed article did not report on the types of programming in the residence halls involved in the study. The link to the actual study states that a $43 payment is required for access, so the full details are not reported here either