Ohio State University is set to become the largest college in the country to require sophomores to live on campus — a rule aimed at improving retention and graduation rates but one that will likely add to the financial burden faced by students.
OSU trustees in August approved $396 million to design and construct new dorms and a recreation center, adding 3,200 beds. The 56,000-student university — the nation’s third largest — said keeping 5,200 sophomores in OSU housing will encourage them to stay involved in university activities and give the campus a smaller feel. The requirement is planned to take effect in fall 2016.
All told, OSU will knock down eight buildings and construct a dozen new ones, beginning later this year and wrapping up by August 2016. Two architecture firms — Acock Associates and Elkus Manfredi — have already been hired.
Ohio State plans to issue bonds, take out an internal loan and spend cash to finance the project. Room rates will go up as much as 6 percent per year; meal and recreation fee increases won’t be capped but aren’t expected to jump as much as room rates.
OSU also plans to use 1,000 beds in the Greek community, but only fraternities and sororities that comply with university programming rules will be allowed to house second-year students in their off-campus facilities.
Dorms vs. off-campus living
The dorm plan comes at a time when the cost of a college education is very much on the minds of students and families. The average OSU student owes $24,840 in loans at graduation, according to the Project on Student Loan Debt.
It is hard to say how much the sophomore rule might add to that total, but students say living off campus is generally less expensive while dorm life is more convenient. Dorm expenses range from $9,095 to $12,320 for two semesters, according to OSU data. Students willing to do without air conditioning, share a corridor bathroom, have three roommates and sign up for a 19-meals-per-week plan pay less than those in single rooms with air conditioning, semi-private baths and the most generous dining plans.
Richard Talbott, who co-owns 500 apartment units near campus, said his renters pay on average $520 a month for rent and utilities and spend about $200 a month on groceries — a total of $8,640 a year. The apartment rent is for a single room so students don’t have to share a bedroom.
Talbott, who bought his first rental in 1969, said when the university imposes the rule, he’ll lose 35 to 40 percent of his renters. He predicts that marginal properties in the neighborhoods around campus will be rented to non-students and blight and crime will go up.
“None of us have ever been concerned about fair competition,” Talbott said. “But when Ohio State uses decree to fill their buildings and charges more, that’s not fair. And the students get less.”
Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, said Ohio State is using the “monopoly card they have over students” to require them to purchase OSU housing and food.
“They are using their market power to impose rather inefficient and costly services on students that they don’t want,” said Vedder. “It seems to me that they ought to stick to what they’re best at. Universities are best at educating students. They’re losing focus.”
Ohio ACLU Director Christine Link believes public universities should let adult students live where they choose but doesn’t see a solid legal challenge to OSU’s sophomore rule. “I think it’d be a difficult case to make, particularly in this era when the courts aren’t favorable to individual rights,” Link said.
The university has not determined which students will be exempt from the requirement, but universities typically exclude students who are married, older than 21 or whose parents live close by.
Sophomore rule stretches back decades
Schools that require sophomores to live on campus say their students do better academically, are more likely to graduate and feel more connected to their universities and their majors.
Ohio, Bowling Green State and Kent State universities — four-year public schools in small towns — have required sophomores to live on campus for decades. Miami University brought its sophomores back onto campus in 2009.
Miami has not seen an improvement to its retention rate since instituting its sophomore rule, but student satisfaction with the university experience is improving, said Barbara Jones, vice president for student affairs. Before the 2009 rule, students were choosing off-campus housing for their sophomore year just weeks after they arrived as freshmen.
The trend nationwide has been to focus more on the sophomore year, which is a time when students more seriously examine their choices and what they want for their futures, said Molly Schaller, a University of Dayton professor who studies the college experience. Schaller said at many schools, the sophomore year has not been well designed.
“What helps you stay in college when things get tough is feeling like you fit there. Residence halls do the best job of that. They make such a difference in students’ sense of place and belonging,” she said.
Even with research showing the benefits of living on campus, there is a saying in higher education that “students don’t do optional.” Requiring them to live on campus sends a clear message that a university is committed to the academic and social benefits of dorm life, said Jennifer R. Keup, director of the National Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.
Keup said, however, that not all schools can afford to build the dorms that would be required to house all sophomores.
OSU will spend $2 million in first year
OSU officials insist that the sophomore rule is for the good of the students and have branded it as the Second-year Transformational Experience Program, or STEP. The graduation rate for students who voluntarily live on campus a second year is slightly higher than those who live on campus just one year: 88.2 percent vs. 86.8 percent, according to OSU.
OSU will assign faculty mentors to the dorms as a way to foster student-teacher relationships and the university will offer $2,000 stipends to sophomores who want to study abroad, take internships, or experience other developmental programs. The university will spend $2 million in fall 2013 to pilot the program with 1,000 students on campus, said Javaune M. Adams-Gaston, OSU’s vice president for student life.
“I think that folks here are trying to make this big place feel smaller,” said Susan Jones, OSU associate professor in higher education and student affairs. “In terms of student success, students feel like they belong. It is easier to feel like they belong when the place feels smaller.”
Students said they see both the benefits and drawbacks of the sophomore rule.
Jim O’Brien, an OSU sophomore from Hudson, Ohio, lived in a dorm as a freshman but is now renting a house with four friends. He enjoys the freedom of living off campus and choosing how to spend his money, but says residence halls are a great place to meet people. “A bunch of my friends didn’t get as involved as I am and they’re sitting on the couch at home, wondering what to do,” he said.
Kiersten McCartney, an OSU senior from New York, lived on campus for two years but now has an apartment, which is generally less expensive.
“Overall, (the sophomore rule) is a good decision for the university,” she said. “It will connect students and it will provide a better environment for the transition years. But (university officials) need to evaluate the cost of living on campus.”
*Requires sophomores to live on campus
**Does not require any student to live on campus
Sources: Miami and Wright State universities
Sources: Miami and Wright State universities