On-Campus Residency

In September, we announced to our students a plan to encourage and enhance on-campus residency. These plans have been a subject of discussion for several years among members of my leadership team, the deans and the Board of Trustees, and I want to review with you our rationale for them.

From Notre Dame’s earliest days, on-campus residential life has been a critical component of undergraduate life. Sorin Hall, one of the University’s oldest buildings, was a novelty at the time in that it was a student residence with private sleeping and study space at a time when the standard was a large dormitory room with many beds. The construction reflected a commitment to make residential life not simply the provision of functional space for sleeping and eating, but the creation of a community where a student could develop intellectually, physically and spiritually.

Since the late 1960’s, the University has adopted a model of mixed class, single sex dorms, which enabled upper class women and men to interact with and provide example and leadership for younger students.

These halls have contributed significantly to undergraduate life. Each year, every graduating senior is required to take a survey about their experience at Notre Dame, and we are able to compare our results with those of the nation’s other elite, private universities. As  you can see from this chart, we compare favorably on a range of questions. However, on one question we dramatically exceed the results at these other institutions: the sense of community on campus. When we ask our students what creates the sense of community on campus, they identify several factors, but the most highly rated one is our residence halls. 

We believe this sense of community is important to the personal growth of our students, which is a central feature of the education we strive to offer our undergraduates. Because it is so important, Erin Harding, our vice president for student affairs, and her team have worked with others to strengthen our residence hall life. One problem we had was overcrowding, which forced us to cannibalize social and study hall space and undermined the capacity of these buildings to be the home they should be for our students. In the fall of 2016, we were able to add two new dorms, Dunne Hall for men and Flaherty Hall for women, which allowed us to eliminate the overcrowding problem.

"We believe this sense of community is important to the personal growth of our students, which is a central feature of the education we strive to offer our undergraduates."

In addition, we have established a schedule for the renovation of our residence halls, which will bring to older and newer dorms comparable physical conditions, social space, study space and normalized room configurations.

Having taken these steps, we turned our attention to a concerning trend for upper class women and men, and particularly seniors, to move off campus. The graph tells the story of that trend. Due to the moves off campus and study abroad, on average, 64% of the students living in our halls are first-years and sophomores. 

So why do we care about this trend? First, as I said, with lower numbers of juniors and seniors in the halls, there is less opportunity for them to provide leadership and example to less mature students. Secondly, students living off campus have fewer University safety nets, such as peer and staff support in times of crisis, whether physical or emotional. Thirdly, the move off campus tends to segregate our students. Whereas wealthier students, students in a number of varsity sports and business students are more likely to move off and live together, U.S. minorities, first generation students, women, architecture and engineering students are more likely to stay on. Fourth and finally, students living off-campus are less involved in the intellectual and social life of campus. Off-campus students are less likely to spend time on student clubs and activities, participate in a professor’s research, and study and discuss course content outside of class. They are more likely to miss class and have a higher rate of drinking.

Both David Bailey, our vice president for strategic planning and institutional research, and the Division of Student Affairs analyzed surveys, met with student focus groups and consulted various student groups to understand better what leads students to decide to move off campus and how we might attract them to stay on campus. In addition, we surveyed parents and benchmarked peer institutions. Based on this work, Erin Harding and the Student Affairs team formulated a comprehensive strategy to encourage students to stay in our residence halls and enhance the student life in those halls.

We announced to our undergraduates recently a suite of initiatives:

  • We will offer a collection of incentives to keep seniors in the residence halls.  Among these are flexible dining hall plans, financial incentives for students who commit early to staying on campus in their senior year, and new roles with modest financial remuneration for seniors to provide leadership in the residence halls.
  • We will establish a six semester (or three-year) on-campus residency requirement, up from our current one-year requirement. The requirement is comparable to peers such as Duke, Georgetown and Brown and less than Vanderbilt, which has a four-year requirement. Because 98% of our sophomores and 85%-90% of our juniors live on campus, it will affect a limited number of students. We plan to begin this with the undergraduates who will matriculate next fall, in 2018.

In addition to these initiatives, we plan to establish a list of off-campus residential facilities that we recommend. This will be a helpful guide to seniors who do move off, but also to our professional and graduate students, to enable them to identify facilities that are safe and of good quality.

In order to implement these plans, we will need to construct two new dorms in coming years to house these students. We are working to identify funding for these new facilities.