Thelin, the author of A History of American Higher Education, told me that the number of on-campus beds increased when some universities received more public funding and put much of it toward building housing in the late 1950s and early ’60s, when the college-going population started to increase rapidly. But the new dorms still weren’t very nice. “If someone today were to go back in time, they would find the dormitories very spartan, even at the prestigious colleges,” Thelin said. It was typical for these “lean and ascetic” accommodations to have two or three students to a bedroom and to have communal bathrooms and showers shared by 20 or 30 students. “I can’t think of any place that thought in terms of student comfort,” he said. “At most, they would add a common study area, or a house library, or something like that.”
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In the mid-’80s, a confluence of factors led colleges to compete more intensely for enrollees, and they began orienting themselves more toward the desires of students. “You have upper-middle-class families visiting a campus, and parents are saying, ‘My goodness, we’re paying this amount of money for tuition for our son or daughter, and they’re living in this nondescript place,’ [one] that may not be well maintained,” Thelin said.
The rationale for building fancier dorms and rolling out plush amenities is that doing so might entice prospective students—especially those who can afford to pay full tuition—in a competitive higher-education market. But it’s not clear that this reliably pays off. Kevin McClure, a professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, calls this the “If you build it, will they come?” question. “I don’t know that there is that much in the way of empirical evidence that directly says, ‘By building new facilities, you necessarily attract more students,’” he told me. Arriving at such a determination, he said, would require clearly defining what counts as luxurious (granite countertops? nickel finishes?) and data that track the presence of those features in the nation’s dorms. Neither a straightforward definition nor such a specific data set exists.
There is some evidence that prospective students discriminate between schools based on how nice their campuses are. The authors of a 2015 study looking at colleges’ spending found that “many students do appear to value college consumption amenities,” and in particular that wealthier students seemed to be “much more willing to pay for consumption amenities.” However, McClure said, there aren’t conclusive—or granular enough—data pointing to a causal link between building fancy dorms and achieving enrollment goals.
Besides, he articulated a bunch of reasons colleges build new dorms that don’t have to do with wooing amenity-hungry students: Some schools need to accommodate growing student bodies. Some are trying to transition from commuter campuses to residential campuses. Some conclude that having students live on campus will increase retention and improve academic outcomes, so they may require, say, first-year students to do so—which means increasing the number of beds.