CEO, Universities East,
Sodexo North America
For today’s students, college is about more than just academics. When students select a college, they are increasingly likely to consider factors beyond the institution’s academic reputation, research facilities and faculty credentials. Students understand that the campus they select will be their home for the next few years, and they are interested in the quality of life they can expect there. For this reason, students are placing greater emphasis on residence life programs when contemplating their options for higher education.
Residence life on college campuses can be defined in many ways. It typically encompasses the services and activities that students expect outside the classroom. From housing and dining to recreational events and opportunities to meet and connect with peers, residence life programs help transform a campus into a true community. Residence life programs may also be a significant factor in a student’s overall college experience and therefor a vital resource in recruiting and retaining students and helping them succeed.
Residence Life: A Differentiator in a Competitive Marketplace
Students pursuing higher education are often faced with an overwhelming array of choices. For many students, the decision regarding where to attend college is influenced by the quality and accessibility of student housing and other aspects of residence life, with 42% of students stating that residence halls were “extremely” or “very” important to the college selection process. First-year students for whom housing was important in their decision process listed size/type of room, age of building and amenities as the most influential factors according to a 2013 article in The Journal of College and University Housing.
Supporting Student Retention and Success
A comprehensive residence life program that enhances the student experience has been shown to support retention, improve academic performance and increase graduation rates. This is one of the reasons that 77% of housing administrators actively campaign to keep students in campus housing.
However, it isn’t just the convenience of the close proximity to classes and campus activities that students want. Students who can identify with their residence hall community, interact with peers in this community and find solidarity there feel an increased sense of communal potential, which has a positive correlation with student persistence in pursuing academic goals. In addition, 55% of students believe that residence life programs help them learn to balance social activities with academic obligations, and 59% feel that involvement in residence life programs and events helps them develop skills and abilities they will use after college.
A Tool for Addressing Challenges
A thriving residence life program can also help overcome challenges related to recruitment and retention. For example, Dillard University in New Orleans witnessed a devastating decline in enrollment after the campus and surrounding areas were severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As administrators sought ways to bring students back to campus – and keep them there – they realized that a vibrant residence life program could be an invaluable tool for attracting and retaining students.
The need to rebuild many campus buildings that were destroyed by the storm created a unique opportunity to design a residence life program quite literally from the ground up. The University began by hiring new leadership for the residence life program and providing a strong directive to develop a sense of community on campus. Administrators developed a new model for supporting first-year students that focused on individualized advising and mentoring. The University also introduced a lecture series to bring a variety of scholars, entertainers and writers to campus for monthly events, engaging both the campus and the broader community. They also worked to enhance the athletic experience, providing a rich game-day program and employing students to promote events via social media and other avenues to foster a sense of pride and spirit on campus.
Dillard University’s efforts to build an engaging residence life program have yielded significant benefits. Early data has shown that retention rates, which declined considerably following Hurricane Katrina, have returned to their pre-storm levels according to a 2016 College Planning and Management Survey.
Improving Quality of Life
A vibrant residence life program is not only beneficial in helping institutions attract and retain students, it is also a key component in improving the quality of life on campus. Residence life programs create so many opportunities to connect with students and help them become active participants in the campus community and keep them engaged throughout their academic journey. Through our innovative approaches to student living and other components of residence life, Sodexo helps our partner campuses deliver the services, amenities and opportunities that help today’s students – and institutions – succeed.
Jim Jenkins is CEO of Universities East for Sodexo North America where he oversees more than 400 college and university partnerships. With $9.3 billion in annual revenues in the U.S. and Canada, Sodexo’s 133,000 employees provide more than 100 unique services that increase performance at 9,000 client sites and improve Quality of Life for 15 million consumers every day.