Not Everyone Can Afford the All-American On-Campus Experience

Living away from home gives students a chance to immerse themselves in new academic and social worlds. But that kind of college experience is available only to an increasingly privileged few.

Until this past June, I taught 12th grade English at a small charter school in Los Angeles where Latino kids from Inglewood and Mid-City make up 90 percent of the student body. Their immigrant parents are truck drivers, auto mechanics, housecleaners, and cooks who didn’t go to college, but knowing what real poverty feels like, they’ve worked hard to ensure that their children will. They’ve planted a sense of urgency, and in most cases, it has taken root.

This fall, a few of my former students are attending private East Coast colleges on scholarships. Nearly 25 percent are going to selective University of California colleges like UCLA and UC-Irvine. With the exception of those who opted for community colleges, trade schools, or the armed forces, the rest are headed to less-selective California state schools. They’re all receiving some financial aid, but most of those at in-state colleges are nonetheless taking out substantial loans to pay for college. These students panic at the prospect of borrowing even a few thousand dollars a year. All college students prefer to avoid debt, but for those without a post-collegiate safety net, that fear can drive them to cost-saving measures beyond buying used books online and reselling them after finals.

One former student of mine, Bryan is heading into his second year at UCLA. He has outsized plans: medical school and a Hollywood screenwriting career. Bryan’s mother manages a chain restaurant, and as a result, Bryan is stuck in a tricky middle bracket—not poor enough for awards, but too poor to pay tuition. He is relying on loans and saving money each year by living with his parents—on-campus housing would cost nearly as much as the tuition, he says. Most weekdays, Bryan takes buses from Mid-City to Westwood and back, a journey he estimates sucks two to five hours from each day, depending on traffic, the timing of his trips, and whether he can bum a ride one way.

It doesn’t always start out this way. High school students initially get to know campus life through a collision of rumors, Princeton Review soundbites, and second-hand advice from people too old to recall the experience with clarity. They flip through glossy viewbooks, noting the brick, the tree-lined paths, the pretty models with white-toothed grins clustered in the quad. They imagine themselves shuffling sleepily from dorm to class and their swarm of bright new friends from places they’ve never visited. But when they see their aid packages and crunch a few numbers, they come to a pragmatic conclusion that doesn’t inherently reject the value of living on campus.

Whenever high school students start talking about their commuting plans, many administrators, teachers, and counselors urge them to consider dorm life—at least for the first few years of school. I often heard our school’s founder dub it “the real college experience.” Counselors might explain to skeptical parents how life on campus will improve their children’s emotional health. Teachers worry aloud that students who never live on campus won’t enjoy the same quality of education as their peers, if they manage to graduate at all. Given the debates waged in major publications, I suspect the same kinds of conversations happen at similar schools around the country.

I’ve never been insensitive to my students’ financial situations. Yet I’ve called commuting “a bad idea,” convinced that my students would benefit from easy access to tutoring, study groups, walk-in writing support services, on-campus technology, and professors’ office hours. College, I’ve intoned, is not just about classes, a transcript, and a degree; it's about the people you meet and the time you spend together, the bubbling social stew, the transformative process. In saying all this, I’ve been right, but I’ve also been naïve.

In many ways, dorm living is an experience I would not wish to relive. The room can feel like a cement cell with a bed the width of a diving board. Noise is the norm, from shouted conversations and trampling feet to the disorienting mash-up of the music that’s always booming self-consciously from at least three outposts along the hall. Flings with neighbors are simultaneously freeing and suffocating. Friends knock without regard for the hour. Meet the roommate wearing the wizard robe, the roommate wearing nothing, the roommate with Parmesan feet, and the drunk who observes you studying with a curious squint, as if you were a tenderfoot moseying into the wrong part of town.

Yet, I can’t help sentimentalizing dorm life and everything that comes with it. When you live on campus, earning doesn’t screech to a halt when class lets out. New friends down the hall may have as much to do with a first-year student’s evolving perspective on the latest development in the Israel-Palestine conflict as the professor she sees twice a week. Listening to Ornette Coleman with jazz majors is a richer experience than listening alone.

A lot of research supports the idea that students living in residence halls are more engaged. A 2001 analysis of data from Indiana University’s National Survey of Student Engagement revealed that while commuter students may work hard, write well, and participate in class discussions, they may not take full advantage of the available educational resources. A UC-Irvine study of resident and commuter freshmen in 2005 found that, while grades and self-reported “academic learning gains” didn’t dramatically differ, residents felt more “academically involved” with other students outside of class, possessed a “better understanding and appreciation of diversity,” and felt “a stronger sense of belonging” to the campus.

Some research suggests resident students are less likely to drop out than those who commute. A 2011 Review of Higher Education study done by a University of Wisconsin doctoral student found a link between on-campus residency and retention. Full-time commuter students frequently become part-timers, and eight-year graduation rates among that population are 36 percent lower than those of full-time students, according to Complete College America’s 2011 report, “Time is the Enemy.” The takeaway is that social integration fosters commitment, which in turn leads to academic success.

For students like mine, not being at home might be even more important than being on campus. Laundry without coins and a fridge bursting with snacks are nice, but home life can be more distracting than a dorm, especially for those hailing from low-income communities. The problems that persisted during high school don’t magically vanish. Students have trouble finding a quiet place to work at home when they live in a relatively cramped space dominated by yowling little ones, blaring televisions, and stressed adults. Neighbors may throw parties that put college keggers to shame. Mom may scream down younger siblings and Dad may invite friends over for loud, boozy gatherings. Even the quietest, most sedate parents may saddle their college students with heavy babysitting, carpool, and house-cleaning duties. When one of my former students was in her first year of college, her mom went to another country for three months, leaving her to raise a two-year-old brother. Many students—through personal choice or parental decree—try to hold down a demanding job while tackling a full load of classes.

What’s more, I’ve reasoned, first-generation college-goers like my students, who have grown up with little money and English as a second language, are especially in need of the academic and social support systems a campus can provide. It’s better to pay more for college and actually finish. The student who quits school after two years still has to pay back her loans.

But the arguments for living on campus are complicated at every turn. In reality, dorm life, especially at selective schools, can be alienating for first-generation minority students struggling to relate to peers with private school diplomas and plenty of pocket money. To low-income parents, many of whom have more traditional values, talk of non-academic engagement can sound pretty frivolous and even suspicious, as if easy access to frat row were being recast as a pillar of a well-rounded education. To these same parents, staying at home doesn’t seem at all unconventional. In high school, my peers and I understood going away to college as going away. Separation from family was part of the deal. This is not a universally accepted notion in Latino and Asian family traditions in which multi-generational households are quite common.

I realize now that when I was advocating for life on campus, I was partly romanticizing the late-night study sessions, parties, hook-ups, debates, and events simply because they’d been part of my own experience. I advocated for what I knew, not because I didn’t acknowledge my students’ financial realities, but because I saw my college experience as being worth the problems reaching for it might generate. Less-privileged students often understand college as something very different: commuting to classes, learning the material with whatever resources they can access, and then going home to study.

For all of these reasons, any campaign in favor of residency should be delicately waged. Helicopter teachers are more annoying than their parent equivalents. Instead of bellowing to a squirming student about the dangers of social isolation, teachers and counselors might consider telling stories. When I make a pro-residency pitch to a student who seems especially likely to benefit from on-campus living, I can rattle off statistics and share anecdotes about other students I have taught, those who have done dorms and benefited, those who have commuted and felt isolated. Or I can just speak, in casual conversation, without a stated purpose, about the characters I met in college—those who have since been housemates, co-workers, editors, bandmates, confidantes, and fodder for dozens of yet-to-be-written short stories. I can talk about the professors I could invite for a beer, and about the agony and ecstasy of intramural softball competition.

The friends you make within the learning community you cultivate, the ones you may never know if you just swoop in for classes and labs, may someday become business partners, creative collaborators, and reliable allies in a future life unfolding over a horizon you can’t see past. That is part of what your tuition pays for—the opportunity to learn in the specific context that the school provides, not just in a specific program helmed by renowned professors. The advantages can be hard to anticipate before the opportunity to enjoy their fruits have arrived.

But being a good English teacher, I have learned when to step back from the lectern. I would like to see my students reap all the benefits I received from on-campus living. While they deserve this experience as much as anyone, it's patronizing, unfair, and impractical to demand that they seize it.