Why Segregation in College Increases After Freshman Year

Campus divides along racial and socioeconomic lines deepen as students are priced out of expensive residence halls.

A student sets up her twin-sized bed and arranges other items in her dormitory.
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Rutgers University is divided into five residential campuses, and once freshman Imani Hayes figured the system out, she noticed one of them—called Livingston—being referred to as “the black campus.”

In part, Hayes found when she began at Rutgers in 2011, that was because Livingston was where the African American studies classes were held. But she said she learned there was another reason: It was one of the cheapest places to live.

“If you look at the pictures of the dorms, they were kind of old, not very appealing,” she said. “Nobody really chose to live in Livingston. The only people who really lived there were the black students,” many of whom were  from lower-income backgrounds and price conscious.

As calls intensify for more diversity at universities and colleges, some students and researchers say socioeconomic and racial segregation on campuses is instead on the rise. Among other things, they say, differently priced dorms and dining halls are dividing rich and poor—and, by extension, white and nonwhite—by what they can afford to pay.

The trend has been propelled by some public universities’ attempts to compensate for budget cuts by luring higher-income and out-of-state students with newer (and more expensive) housing. There has been a separate, little-noticed phenomenon of pricey off-campus student apartments being built by private real-estate investment companies. This is a change from a time when the only price difference among rooms in different dorms was based on whether they were singles, doubles, or triples.

Rutgers, for example, added new apartments with single rooms, private bathrooms, refrigerators, microwaves, dishwashers, and the highest rents on campus. Those have attracted higher-income students, many of them white, Hayes said. A Rutgers spokesman refuted this characterization, saying that the university “is renowned for its diverse population and inclusive community” and that more than half its students are nonwhite. Federal data show this is in large part due to a disproportionate representation of Asians, who make up 26 percent of the enrollment, which is 7 percent black and 13 percent Hispanic.

Some colleges and universities acknowledge that this kind of separation is occurring and are responding to it by encouraging students from different backgrounds to interact in other ways. But they point out that federal law prevents housing offices from even asking about students’ race or income, and that students expect to be able to choose their own living spaces, dining companions, and roommates.

“I don’t think it happens on purpose,” said Hayes, who graduated in May and now works in information technology. “But I also don’t think it’s a trivial thing. I came to Rutgers and I believed the diversity spiel.” She said she was “a little confused” when she found that students from different races and income levels often didn’t mix. “That’s the point of college,” she said. “You likely came from a place where everybody looked like you. At college, you should be getting an experience that’s different.”

And many students aren’t, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher-education policy at Temple University and co-author of an ongoing six-year study at 42 public universities and colleges of practices that promote division or equality. “Not only are the poor kids and the rich kids going to different schools, but they’re being segregated in their living spaces and in the places where they eat, and there are institutional policies that contribute to this,” Goldrick-Rab said.

“It’s like the rest of society, unfortunately,” she said. “These campuses tout how they’re the bastions of diversity. No. You may be on the same campus, but you’re having the same segregated experience as you would in the rest of the world.”

This only worsens the problem of high dropout rates, said Caroline DeLeon, a program director at uAspire, which works with low-income students who are the first in their families to go to college. “We lose really talented students because they don’t feel part of the community at institutions,” DeLeon said.

Often it’s students themselves who do the segregating. A controversial posting for a fourth roommate by three nonwhite students during the summer at the Claremont Colleges in California, for example, specified that they would consider only “POC,” or people of color.

“At a big institution, it’s easier to be around people who have similar backgrounds in terms of your culture and even your race,” said Mai Xiong, reflecting on her experience when she attended the University of Minnesota. “I wanted to be in a certain dorm because I wanted to live with my friends.”

A five-year study of more than 200 students at seven New England colleges backs this up. It found them drifting into networks of people from similar backgrounds. “Most of them don’t do it intentionally,” said one of the researchers, Joe Swingle, a professor of sociology at Wellesley College. “It just sort of happens.”

This division usually begins after freshman year, Swingle and his colleagues found. That’s because arriving students don’t get to pick their roommates, but are instead assigned to them. “It’s a whole thing about developing different perspectives and mutual awareness of what other people’s lives are like so you’re not living in this cocoon,” said Swingle, whose work, with colleagues, has resulted in the new book Practice for Life: Making Decisions in College.

After that, however, students tend to scatter back into segregated groups, the study found. And the relatively new phenomenon of differently priced housing, Swingle said, can only make that worse. “The exposure to diversity that students get in their second, third, and fourth year is going to be even less when students separate into these dorms that are very different in terms of who can afford them and who can’t,” he said. “It just seems like a recipe for further alienation between groups.”

Yet the divides in price are only widening. That’s because cash-strapped universities and colleges use profits from their residence halls and dining plans to offset budget cuts. “It’s part of the much broader trend where finances are guiding decision-making, rather than educational priorities,” Goldrick-Rab said.

Meanwhile, real-estate investment trusts have discovered a new market in building student housing on the edges of campuses, with swimming pools, fitness centers, fully equipped kitchens, floor-to-ceiling windows, washers, dryers, balconies, game rooms, fewer rules than on-campus housing, and almost always higher rents.

One of those companies, American Campus Communities, owns or manages 206 properties with 133,100 beds near many large public and a few private universities, including Florida State, Arizona State, and the universities of Southern California and Texas; it generated $753 million in revenue last year, Securities and Exchange Commission filings show. Another, EdR Collegiate Housing, has added $720 million worth of new student apartment developments since 2010 alone, with more under construction, including at Michigan State University and Texas A&M.

An American Campus Communities development near Princeton costs $1,126 per month, compared to $926 per month for a Princeton dorm. Those new on-campus apartments at Rutgers cost $1,074 per month, per student, to share a two-bedroom suite, compared to $832 for a bed in a double in other dorms.

Differences like these are enough to shut out lower-income students—already struggling to pay tuition—from the more expensive options.

Ruby McRoberts graduated from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, which is ringed with privately developed student apartment buildings. The first in her family to go to college, McRoberts said, “It was never an option for me to live in these high-rise places around campus. I definitely felt that division.”

There are more subtle impacts, too, said Nancy Kendall, a professor of educational-policy studies at the University of Wisconsin. Lower-income students may end up “in a dorm that’s falling apart, versus a dorm that has a coffeehouse downstairs and air conditioning in all the rooms and an athletic facility right there,” Kendall said. “It gives the message to these students that even though they’ve made it, even though they’ve worked their butts off and gotten to these universities, they’re not worth as much as other students.”

This is not lost on administrators, who face a delicate balancing act, said Allan Blattner, the director of housing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers. “Yes, we’re paying attention to what that does to our diversity,” Blattner said. “It is absolutely something that I think our members are really honing in on and trying to figure out strategies to deal with.”

Elon University, for example, has organized its housing into seven broader “neighborhoods,” encouraging students from different backgrounds to eat, socialize, and study together regardless of which dorm they choose. The idea came after the university built some new residence halls and charged a higher price for them, said Smith Jackson, the vice president for student life at Elon.

“We were noticing that some people said, ‘I can’t afford this. I can’t live there,’” Jackson said. “We’re trying to prepare students for life in the United States, which is the most diverse country in the world. Living with people who are different from you can be one of the most powerful learning experiences there is. You learn more about yourself when you’re exposed to differences.”

After all, Jackson said, “How can we expect future world leaders to live lives of reconciliation and live lives of peace and understanding? If we can’t do it on a college campus, which is designed for that, where else is it going to happen?”

This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.