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For Some College Students, Living on Campus Helps Their GPA

Colleges typically require freshmen to live on campus in dormitories. The idea is that total immersion in campus life increases students’ chance of academic success. But is that true?

A recent paper suggests that it is—for certain students.

The biggest beneficiaries of living on a campus were incoming freshmen with high-school grade point averages or ACT scores that put them in the bottom third of their class, according to the paper.

For these students, dormitories reduced the likelihood that they would either fail or drop out of school. For example, among students with high-school GPAs in the bottom tercile, those who lived in a dorm were about 13% less likely than commuting students to have a freshman GPA of less than 1.5, the threshold for academic dismissal. Students in this category who lived in dorms also were almost 9% more likely to return for a second year of school.

“The positive effects of dormitory residence are concentrated among the lowest tercile,” says C. Lockwood Reynolds, an associate professor at Kent State University’s College of Business Administration and the paper’s author. For students in the top two terciles of high school, living in a dormitory had no significant statistical effect compared with commuting students in terms of returning for a second year, or having a GPA that falls below 1.5. For example, Dr. Reynolds says students in the top two terciles who lived in a dormitory freshman year were only about 1.1% more likely than commuter students to boost their GPAs above 3.3, the threshold for honors colleges.

The study uses data on almost 6,000 full-time, in-state students between 1997 and 2007 at a large, unnamed Midwestern university that requires freshmen to live on campus unless their homes are a certain distance from the school, in which case they have the option of commuting from home. Students who chose to commute became, in effect, the study’s control group. Dr. Reynolds tested to ensure there was no influence from variables such as ZIP Code and commuting times, or social, economic and demographic variables, such as parental income and education. (Previous studies on this topic compared different schools, making it hard to account for other variables that contribute to student success.)

Dr. Reynolds suspects incoming freshmen with lower ACT scores or grades benefit by learning from their peers. By living in a dormitory, challenged students learn better study habits by watching or even collaborating with their peers. Living in the dorms may also help students learn about academic resources on campus, such as office hours, tutoring services and study groups, Dr. Reynolds says.

For college freshman taking classes online during the pandemic, meanwhile, Dr. Reynolds says he thinks similar dynamics will be at work. He predicts that the top students will be fine, but that students at the other end of the spectrum may have trouble navigating college online and might be overwhelmed by all the academic and administrative information thrown at them by email, websites or online portals.

“The pandemic,” he says, “is likely to widen the gap between the top and bottom students.”

Ms. Ward is a writer in Winhall, Vt. She can be reached at [email protected]

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