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.