Should a College be Residential or Non-residential?

Gay Perez, University of Virginia

Whether you are a faculty member or administrative staff at your institution of higher education, what matters to our students is more than just what they learn in the academic classroom… it is also what they experience while attending our institutions that determine retention rates, alumni giving, career trajectories, and overall student satisfaction.

With increasing attention paid to the individual cost of receiving a college degree and the increasing limitation of financial resources, colleges and universities are wrestling with the question: should our colleges and universities be residential or non-residential?

For both large public institutions and small specialised colleges, defining the student experience will determine recruiting strategies and influence retention rates, success in obtaining degrees and, ultimately, job placement viability.

When we consider different approaches to creating the student experience we also have to consider the residential or non-residential character of our campuses.  For purposes of this blog, ‘residential’ will be defined as physically living in a facility located on the grounds and affiliated with a college or university.  ‘Non-residential’ will be defined as not physically living in a facility located on the grounds of a college or university.

The residential experience on campuses across the globe can vary from institution to institution almost as much as the academic courses of study.  In the United States, the approach to providing a residential experience as part of living in campus facilities tends to fall under the broad umbrella of living and learning communities. Individual models of living and learning programs can range from ‘interest housing’ to residential colleges.

Residential colleges represent one method modern American colleges and universities use to achieve two important goals that are critical to the desired residential student experience: to create an integrated educational environment where students learn both inside and outside the classroom; and to educate the whole student, taking into consideration students’ intellectual and developmental needs.  In the traditional sense of ‘residential colleges,’ by placing faculty in spaces where students live, higher education institutions hope to create an environment conducive to meeting these goals (Schroeder & Mable, 1994).

As prices increases, so too do parental and student expectations and it is becoming more important to institutions to provide a ‘value-added’ component. Some colleges achieve this by offering consistent ‘student experience’ outcomes and remain able to achieve those goals without the residential component.  Monash University in Clayton, Victoria (Australia) has developed a non-residential model that has captured the benefits associated with a traditional residential experience without the costs associated with on-campus housing.  Specific benefits outlined on their website (non-residential benefits) include:

  • Social structures and supports
  • Leadership and mentoring from upper-class [that is, senior year] peers and student affairs/pastoral care staff.
  • Access to a myriad of programmatic opportunities that may include athletics, healthy living, multicultural experiences, and social engagement.

In the United States, New York University (NYU) offers learning communities for non-residential students or ‘commuter students.’  Under the learning communities’ umbrella, the Pathways program ( attempts to provide opportunities to those not residing on campus to engage in experiential learning outside the classroom. The program has themed learning communities that allow students to discover different topics with an NYU Faculty Member. The program combines formal teaching, informal learning, creative activities, and personal support to bring students together to build a shared community while delving into all that New York City has to offer.  Additionally, all incoming first-year commuter students are assigned a ‘Commuter Assistant’ corresponding to the Resident Assistant model for residential students.

College administrators should be careful to avoid a deficit-minded approach in which one group is established as the norm and programs and services are provided to the other group to replicate the student experience despite considerable differences.  When considering services for these two distinct groups – residential and non-residential students – it is important to consider the unique needs of each group. If choice is available between living on-campus and off-campus, what factors do students consider when making that choice? How do these factors give insight to the services students expect?

With these various contexts in mind, it is time to go back to the question before us, should a college be residential or non-residential?  I would argue that the answer lies within the governing structure of each and every institution of higher education. Critical aspects for each institution to address include:

  • Institutional mission and priorities
  • Funding sources and availability
  • Student needs and interests

There is ample research available that talks about all elements of learning opportunities whether residential or non-residential. I would offer that institutional priorities must be the driving force on direction with specific attention being paid to your students’ needs and interests. Faculty engagement and supportive funding tends to follow if the institution believes these opportunities matter and are aligned with their recruitment, retention and graduation rates, and job placement success.



2 thoughts on “Should a College be Residential or Non-residential?

  1. Many thanks for this piece, Gay.

    I’m especially struck by what you write about the importance of avoiding ‘a deficit-minded approach in which one group is established as the norm and programs and services are provided to the other group to replicate the student experience despite considerable differences’ in their circumstances and, often, their requirements and desires.

    Several of the Durham colleges have recently welcomed a sizeable cohort of Part-Time and Distance-Learning students (420 in Hatfield College alone) mainly from the Business School and the School of Education. Clearly, we’re keen to provide these PTDL students with opportunities for experiential learning beyond their academic programme whilst also recognising that some / many / perhaps even the majority of these students (often they are mid-career professionals who are balancing further education with family and career commitments) may not want this normative ‘student experience’.

    The Pathways program at NYU sounds like a great response to this situation, and I’m keen to read more about this. Many thanks for the link.

    Dr Eleanor Spencer-Regan
    Assistant Senior Tutor
    Hatfield College


    • Hi Gay
      Thank you for your interesting thoughts. I think the real question that universities need to ask is, what makes a good residential college/university? Too often, I think, universities simply build on-campus accomodation with the belief that a great, vibrant residential community will exist without strategy, resources and purpose…in which case, any good commuter university will have superior student experiences.

      I look forward to meeting you at the conference.

      Chris Massey
      Director UWA Student Residences
      The University of Western Australia


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