Episode 88: Assignment #8–Looking at College Housing and Safety

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Assignment #8 should be another of the more enjoyable and less academic assignments. Its premise is that, if a student is not living at home during college, then the kinds of residence halls or other campus housing available at a college makes a difference in the life of that student–at least for the freshman year and often for much longer. We feel as though you all are getting a well-rounded view of the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options so far. Here’s what you have already done:

So, now let’s turn to campus housing (plus a few words for students who plan to commute).

Episode 88: Assignment #8--Looking at College Housing and Safety on USACollegeChat podcast1. Your Assignment #8

 Download the Assignment #8 Worksheet

For Assignment #8, your teenager and you are going to examine the types of on-campus housing available. You already found out (back in Assignment #1) whether freshmen are required to live on campus–as many are. But there are some colleges–including some really interesting colleges–where students live in campus housing well past the freshman year, such as Hamilton College (in upstate New York), where all students live on campus in 27 residence halls or St. Michael’s College (in Colchester, Vermont) where all full-time undergrads live on campus all four years unless they are living at home with family or Colorado College (in Colorado Springs) where there is a three-year on-campus housing requirement (with a few exceptions) or the University of Rochester (NY) where more than 90 percent of students live in campus housing. What are all those colleges–and their students–thinking?

And then there is the issue of safety. That’s a topic that, unfortunately, seems to be in the news more and more often lately. What can you find out about safety on campus before your teenager enrolls or even applies? And what about the safety of students who are commuting to campus day and night by public transportation or by car?

2. Why On-Campus Housing?

Let me start by saying that your teenager should live on campus if that is at all possible, given whatever financial constraints your family has, and we have already said that many colleges require it. I am sure colleges have good and bad reasons for requiring it. A really good reason is that living together in campus housing (whether that means traditional dorms or residential “houses” or something else) does promote a kind of camaraderie among students that is hard to develop any other way. Living in close proximity to others in your same situation often provides a system of support and friendship that many kids at college want and need–whether that comes from studying late into the evening/morning together or eating together or walking back and forth to classes together or meeting each other’s friends and just hanging out together. I bet lots of us still have friends from that freshman dorm experience; I know I do, and that was 46 years ago. Perhaps a bad reason, though an understandable one from the colleges’ point of view, is that colleges need to fill those dorm rooms and bring in the revenue that comes from filling those dorm rooms.

I feel about the importance of living on campus the same way I feel about the importance of going away to college. Both provide students with a way to spread their wings in a relatively safe and protected environment before they are ready to be on their own completely. Living in campus housing requires a student to figure out how to eat, study, do laundry, clean up, sleep enough, and manage money–without having to deal with the safety and transportation and utilities issues that come with off-campus housing and without the perhaps comparative ease of living at home.

So, even if your teenager is going to a college close to home within commuting distance, opt for letting him or her live on campus, especially if you can afford it, but even if you need scholarship funds or loans to cover it. Why? Because it is an integral part of the college experience and one that your teenager needs, especially if he or she is going to a college close to home.

3. On-Campus Housing Options

So, now that your teenager is going to live on campus, hopefully, remember that not all residential facilities are created equal when it comes to comfort, convenience, supervision, and security. And, when choosing colleges to apply to, remember to think about what residential life will be like not only when your teenager is a freshman, but also when he or she is an upperclassman with perhaps different housing options, including perhaps fraternity and sorority houses and apartments off campus.

Assignment #8 asks you to check out the residential facilities that a college provides. These facilities are usually well described?even bragged about?on the college’s website, can be seen on virtual tours on the website, or can certainly be seen firsthand on a college visit if you are visiting colleges with your teenager. College tours love to take visiting kids and parents to look at dorms, even when they are of the most ordinary kind. While I don’t think you should choose a college because of its housing facilities, I do think you might consider housing as a possible tiebreaker between two colleges that seem otherwise equal or as a way to take a college off your teenager’s list if the housing options seem nonexistent or terrible.

Here are some options you are going to find:

  • Many colleges have traditional college dorms, with long halls of double and single rooms and a huge bathroom shared by everyone on the hall. There are usually upperclassmen serving as residential advisors–maybe one on each floor–who provide at least some level of supervision and care for students.
  • Many colleges have apartment-style suites, with several bedrooms and a bathroom–and sometimes with a living area and a kitchen–for four to six students. Students in these suites often develop strong friendships–meaning that they take care of each other and watch out for each other. And there is still usually a residential advisor nearby.
  • Some colleges have really interesting residential “houses,” which sponsor both social and academic activities for residents, have one or two faculty families living with the students, have their own eating facilities where everyone dines together, and have their own sense of community pride. And the idea of some live-in adult supervision can be pretty appealing to parents. Here are two examples of residential housing plans:

Undergraduates at Rice University in Houston, Texas, are randomly assigned to one of 11 residential colleges?each with its own dining hall, public rooms, dorm rooms, and competitive website. In fact, about 75 percent of undergraduates continue to live in their residential college throughout their time at Rice. Each residential college has a faculty master, who lives in an adjacent house and encourages a rich intellectual and cultural life and a plan for self-governance at the residential college.

At Vassar College, about 98 percent of students live on campus, and about 70 percent of faculty members also live on or near the campus, with one or two faculty families living in each residence hall. Residential life at Vassar is described this way on the website:

Vassar has eight coeducational houses, one house for women only, and one cooperative (where students do their own shopping, cooking, and cleaning).  The great majority of students live in one of these houses through their junior year. Most seniors (and some juniors) choose to live in one of the college’s partially furnished apartment complexes.  Within easy walking distance of the main campus, these apartments house four to five students, each with his/her own bedroom.

The houses are self-governing and self-directing, led by a House Team that includes faculty residents (House Fellows), residential life professionals (House Advisors), residential life student staffers (Student Fellows and House Interns), and house officers elected by the residents of the house.  The house president also sits on the Vassar Student Association Council, representing the house in the student government.  Together, the House Team strives to create an environment that complements the academic life of the college by providing social, cultural, and educational programming in the houses. (quoted from the website)

Many colleges have a mix of housing facilities, too, including off-campus apartment buildings owned and operated by the college.

And then there are some colleges that do not offer housing at all–and not just two-year community colleges, many (but not all) of which expect students to commute to the campus. Take the University of Massachusetts campus in Boston, known as UMass Boston. The second campus in the UMass system, established about 100 years after UMass Amherst. UMass Boston couldn’t be in a more different setting from the flagship campus in Amherst?with Amherst’s small-town-in-the-middle-of-nowhere vibe and Boston’s big-city-filled-with-colleges-and-businesses-and-culture-and-sports vibe. Interestingly, UMass Boston, the only public four-year college in Boston, does not have dormitories for its students. Its Office of Student Housing does assist students with finding roommates and looking for apartment housing nearby (which seems available) and dealing with landlords. However, a concerned parent or student might have some qualms about a freshman living off campus in a big city without any college-provided supervision or safeguards.

4. The Safety Issue

And that brings us to the safety issue?at least the safety issue of being safe in campus housing and on the campus, especially at night. This is, of course, not the whole safety issue on college campuses today, but it is the part we are talking about in this episode. By the way, for real help and insights about all kinds of safety issues, you should listen to The Security Brief with Paul Viollis, coming to a TV station near you this fall and currently a podcast on CBS radio. Paul is truly the expert on this topic. (You can listen to Regina’s interview with Paul about college campus safety on his podcast here.)

So, if you visit a campus housing facility with your teenager, notice whether there is an adult uniformed security guard with sign-in and sign-out books at the entrance of that residential facility. Ask whether the security guard is there 24 hours a day. I know that many college students find these security guards to be a drag, and I know that this amount of supervision is one reason some students prefer to move into off-campus housing after the freshman year. But, I can tell you as a parent that I loved seeing that security guard at the entrance to my daughter’s super-attractive high-rise of apartment-like suites in the middle of Manhattan at Fordham University‘s Lincoln Center campus?even if I did have to get out my driver’s license and sign in and sign out every time I stopped by.

Obviously, uniformed guards provide a higher level of security than a reception desk staffed by students who are working part-time jobs or work-study jobs. And some colleges, as a matter of fact, do not have anyone on duty monitoring the flow of traffic in and out of residential buildings; students just go in and out with their own keys or cards, as I did years ago at Cornell.

If you are on a campus tour, notice and ask about what the daytime and nighttime transportation options are:

  • Many colleges use shuttle buses or vans to take students from one part of campus to another, especially when the campus is big. They are not only safer than having a student walk a long way alone, but also warmer or cooler and drier, if the weather is not cooperating.
  • Many colleges have blue-light phones–on those stand-along towers with the blue light on top that are placed along walkways, in parking lots, or in distant parts of the campus. They let a student in trouble call for help instantly. Some are also outfitted with cameras, sirens, and broadcast systems to alert students nearby or to get more information for the police or security guards. Some colleges believe these blue-light phones deter criminal activity; others believe they are mainly a good thing to be able to advertise to prospective students and their parents.
  • Some colleges provide students who serve as walking escorts from building to building or from buildings to the parking lots after dark?because you just can’t always have a buddy with you.

And some colleges have all of the above and more. As any parent would likely say, “The more, the better.”

Again, if you are on a campus tour, notice and ask about these questions:

  • Are there security guards at the entrances to all of the classroom buildings, libraries, auditoriums, sports facilities, and so on?
  • Are student IDs needed to get in and out of the buildings?
  • How do guests and visitors get in and out of the buildings?
  • Is the campus gated or fenced in or walled in or otherwise closed off? Are there guards at the campus entrances? Of course, many urban campuses do not have any enclosed campus to speak of; they are more like a collection of buildings in a group of city blocks without any sense of a campus. It’s harder to provide a sense of security in those cases. But access to the campus is not just an urban issue. On suburban and rural campuses, is it possible for those outside of the college community to wander on and off the campus at will? That can be just as dangerous as any urban setting.

But, before you even visit a campus, ask your teenager to find out what each college’s website says about the ways security is provided in the residential facilities and on the campus generally.

And then ask your teenager to go to our best friend, College Navigator, the great online search service provided by the National Center for Education Statistics, and look under “Campus Security” for each college on that long summer list of college options. There you will find crime statistics for three years, including the number of and reasons for criminal offenses and arrests on campus and, specifically, in the residence halls. I do believe that the fair interpretation of these statistics is not necessarily easy for just any layperson to do.

Let’s say a word to those of you who plan for your teenager to live at home and commute to campus. Safety is an issue for you, too. Your teenager still needs to pay attention to all of the security measures on campus, just as a residential student does. But you and your teenager also have to worry about the convenience and safety of the commute. Sometimes doing the commute by public transportation seems as though it would be the easy choice. But what about late-night trips home after a meeting on campus or a late class or studying in the library? What about the safety of getting to a remote parking lot to get in your car or of waiting for 20 minutes or more on a subway platform or on an empty street for a public bus? What about commuting in bad weather, especially in snowstorms, when a college campus might close down unexpectedly and public transportation is snarled?   And none of those safety issues take into account simply the time commitment of what might be two or even three hours of commuting each day.

So, have your teenager take the Assignment #8 worksheet and complete one for each college on his or her long summer list of college options. First, jot down the types of campus housing available and anything particularly interesting about those options. Second, note any safety measures discussed on the website and any concerns raised by the Campus Security section of College Navigator. Finally, is you are thinking to have your teenager commute, jot down what that really might mean.

Download the Assignment #8 Worksheet

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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