Rice sociologist finds campus life offers academic benefits to some freshmen

Rice sociologist finds campus life offers academic benefits to some freshmen

Rice News staff

Whether to live on campus is a major issue for college freshmen, their families and university administrators. One consideration is how living in a dorm affects students’ academic success. New research by Rice sociologist Ruth Lopez Turley suggests that the answer to that question varies by race/ethnicity, gender and a variety of institutional characteristics.


Writing in the July edition of Urban Education, Lopez Turley and co-author Geoffrey Wodtke, proposed “that different groups of students are differentially affected by their living environments.” Lopez Turley is an associate professor of sociology, and Wodtke was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin when the research was conducted and is currently a graduate student at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

The study, “College Residence and Academic Performance: Who Benefits From Living on Campus?”, noted that “while many factors influence a student’s level of academic engagement, the single most important environmental factor identified in previous research is living on campus in a residence hall.” However, the authors sought to examine the issue more comprehensively by focusing on the academic achievements of different groups.

They also expanded previous study samples from public research universities to a wider range of institutions, like liberal arts colleges. “At different types of institutions,” Lopez Turley and Wodtke wrote, “the residential experience is likely to differ in ways that may produce significant variation in the relationship between student residence and academic achievement.”

The study’s analytic sample was centered on first-year students, 18 to 25 years old, whose parents claimed them as dependents and who were enrolled full-time in institutions that offered on-campus housing but that did not require first-time students to live on campus. Students attending Rice University were not included in this study. Most of the sample lived on campus (54 percent); 28 percent lived off campus with family, 15 percent lived off campus without family and very few lived in other types of residences (3 percent), such as fraternities/sororities or university-owned off-campus housing.

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The researchers first compared the grades of a national sample of college students living on campus in residence halls, off campus in private apartments and at home with family; they adjusted for student and institutional differences. Then they compared the effect of college residence by race/ethnicity and gender. Finally, they examined whether the relationship between residence and achievement varied across a variety of postsecondary institutions characterized by enrollment size, research orientation, two-year versus four-year, and public versus private control.

Lopez Turley and Wodtke found that “for most students in most institutions, the type of residence during college does not seem to have a significant effect on first-year academic performance.”

For some minority students, however, they found notable differences. “Among black students, those who live on campus in residence halls have significantly higher GPAs than similar students at the same institution who live off campus with family.”

Meanwhile, Lopez Turley and Wodtke found a similar difference for all students attending liberal arts institutions. “Those who live on campus also have significantly higher GPAs than comparable students at the same institution who live off campus with family.”

In an effort to account for these variations, the authors pointed out that “the differences between those who live on campus and those who live off campus without family are insignificant. This suggests that, for black students and students attending liberal arts institutions, living off campus per se does not appear to be leading to lower first-year grades, but rather living with family seems to be the culprit.” Lopez Turley and Wodtke also noted students at liberal arts schools may have an advantage because these institutions usually focus on undergraduates and have more restrictive admissions than larger public universities.

Finally, since living on campus is more expensive than living off campus with family, the authors called for all parties — from high school counselors to parents to university financial aid administrators — to work to make on-campus living more feasible so students can experience the academic benefits.

To read the study, go to http://uex.sagepub.com/content/current.

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