What are the ideal features of modern student housing?

Alexander Astin, in his 1993 book, What Matters in College?: Four critical years revisited, elaborated on key aspects of student development.

Astin established the Input-Environment-Output, or I-E-O, model to underscore the importance of the learning-teaching environment, particularly as created by students and faculty, starting with entering characteristics students bring to college, to what institutions do both in and out of class that impact on students’ outcomes.

Through his study, Astin explored the environmental measures of 135 institutions and 57 student involvement measures and concluded that the single most important environmental influence on a student’s development was the peer group.

Therefore, by enrolling in these institutions, students were entering an arena of influencers from faculty, peers, type of institution, curriculum, co-curriculum, and so on.

Interactions play a significant role for these growing adults. As a result, initiatives should aim at influencing positive interactions, and healthy behaviour, thereby centralising students’ learning.

Student housing and programmes offered in this space have been identified as one of the key foundations upon which positive interactions, leadership skills, personal management and academic focus can be built.

In their 2005 book, Challenging and supporting the first-year student: A handbook for improving the first year of college, Lee Upcraft, John Gardner, and Betsy Barefoot also provide a succinct answer to why institutions should care about student transition into tertiary education as key initial steps in supporting and grounding their learning.

Some of the strategies discussed include prioritising student housing on campuses and leveraging intentional programmes and services to reap the benefits of retention, persistence, and success.

The value of student housing can also be traced from learning communities, which are community-based initiatives that seek to integrate student living with learning through purposeful activities.

These are usually based in student residences to augment learning and have different nomenclature.

A quantitative 2016 study by Bryan Hall and Tom O’Neal, based at the University of Indiana (UI) Southern, analysed the higher impact programs and their value on the academic performance of at-risk students involved in the Residence Learning Community or (RLC).

Residence Learning Community students were exposed to some interventions, and the findings were that students in RLC performed better than those who were not involved.

Learning communities emerged as far back as the experimental college initiated by Alexander Meiklejohn at the University of Wisconsin from 1927 to 1932. Leaning on John Dewey’s 1916 democratic education ideals, Meiklejohn recognised learning as a social process that should engage students as active partners for self-directed learning.

Therefore, at the experimental college within the college, as it was popularly known, students lived with their tutors and were immersed in intensive learning.

In this context, University World News posed some questions about the changing nature of the spaces in which students can thrive.

UWN: What basic facilities should student housing have to ensure an environment where optimal learning can take place?

BP: Students should have comfortable furniture (beds, study tables, bookshelves, closets etc) but also access to clean ablutions, strong safety and security measures, as well as conducive learning spaces within residences under the leadership of gatekeepers who could be either faculty or staff.

A study that compared a suite-style student living area with fewer students sharing common areas and a community-style set-up, where there were several students sharing such facilities, demonstrated that suite-style promoted students’ success more than community-style.

There was a difference in students’ academic achievements or grades in favour of those living in suite-style who were more academically prepared. This is according to a PhD study done in 2011, by Kendra Skinner titled ‘A comparison of community- and suite-style residence halls: The social and academic integration of first-year students’.

UWN: How do the needs of this generation of students differ from, say, a decade ago? In other words, how has student housing design evolved?

BP: The above-discussed study sheds some light on this topic. Most old residences were community-style based but now most institutions prefer suite-style designs to dehumanise campuses into smaller communities that are easier to connect.

There is also more attention given to creating learning spaces within residences, not just beds to sleep on. For some institutions, environmental considerations also include landscaping, recycling and energy-saving initiatives.

UWN: What will a word class facility look like and be like in terms of academic success? In other words, what is the ideal?

BP: The ideal will be an integrated student housing with classes, labs, libraries based in residences, and students taking classes together and living on the same floors to totally change the mindset that there is no difference between living and learning, thereby creating a seamless learning environment.

UWN: What do universities do to enhance student housing as learning spaces?

BP: The University of Botswana is one institution in the African region that has established Living and Learning Communities, or LLC, in student residences to promote community spirit, values, and influence students’ positive interactions with peers and the community to enhance learning.

Due to the shortage of student housing, students in a specific field of study, such as medical students, may live together at some universities.

Students also live within close proximity to wardens, or ‘house parent/s’ who are part-time staff members appointed to help manage residences and facilitate programmes.

UWN: To what extent do universities use private providers to help them provide housing? Are there ever discussions involving institutions and private providers about what the housing needs are in terms of providing learning and teaching spaces?

BP: Universities often do not have formal arrangements with private providers, but there are exceptions when some discussions may take place.

UWN: So, in the design of future housing complexes, what are some of the critical features?

BP: Suite-style models and public-private partnerships to expand our housing demands and designs that promote learning communities in residences and are inclusive for students with special needs.

Barbra M Pansiri is a PhD student at the school of counselling, higher education, leadership and foundations at Bowling Green State University in the United States. She writes in her capacity as the head: African Affiliations, on the executive board of the Association of College and University Housing Officers International, Southern African Chapter, or ACUHO-I SAC.