A Look at College Students’ Living Arrangements

Those of us in the research and policy worlds generally had a different college experience than most American college students have today. One example of this is where students live during college. I had a very traditional college experience, which began with me as a recent high school graduate moving into my (non-air conditioned) dorm room in Truman State University’s Ryle Hall in the sweltering August heat.[1] Yet that residential experience is not what most students experience, as I show in my fourth blog post using newly-released data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS).

As the chart below shows, only 15.6% of all undergraduate students lived on campus in the 2015-16 academic year, a percentage that has largely been consistent since 2000. 56.9% of students lived off campus away from their parent(s), while 27.5% lived off campus with their parents. Aside from a strange blip in 2011-12, these percentage have also been fairly consistent over time.[2]

This low percentage could be explained in part by students living on campus during their first year of college and then moving off campus later on in an effort to either save money or gain more independence. I then focused the next chart on the roughly 38%-40% of students who were first-year students (about 25% at four-year public and private nonprofit colleges and 50% at community colleges and for-profits) to get an idea of whether patterns changed among new students only.[3] Interestingly, the percentages of first-year students living on campus (12.9%) and off campus away from their parent(s) (53.8%) were lower than for all students, which I figured was due to the smaller percentage of four-year students among the first-year student cohort.

I then broke down student living arrangements by institutional type for the 2015-16 academic year, showing numbers both for all students and only for first-year students. The finding that will surprise many is that less than 50% of first-year students at four-year colleges live on campus, in spite of this being viewed as the traditional college experience. 49% of first-year students at private nonprofit colleges and 36% of first-year students at public four-year colleges lived on campus, while very few community colleges or for-profit colleges even have campus housing. The most common living arrangement for both the community college and for-profit sectors was to live off campus away from parent(s) , with about 60% of community college and 75% of for-profit students doing this regardless of year in college. About 40% of community college students lived with their parent(s), with private nonprofit students being least likely to do this (13%).

These data show that the “typical” residential college experience that many of us had was not the typical experience even when we went to college.[4] A more typical college student is the young woman who rang me up as a outlet mall cashier last weekend. She was an education major at the local community college and said that she lived at home to save money. After I introduced myself as a professor, she mentioned that she was hoping to continue living at home and commuting to a nearby four-year college. Although I was unable to get an extra teacher discount from her at the cash register, it was a good reminder that most students never live in a residence hall.

[1] Air conditioning matters a lot in education, folks. For empirical evidence in a K-12 setting, see this great new NBER working paper by Josh Goodman and colleagues.

[2] Fellow data nerds, any idea what happened in 2011-12? I looked at each sector and the pattern is still there (with it being strongest among four-year colleges). For that reason, I am hesitant to place much value on the 2011-12 off campus percentages.

[3] I used the NPSAS variable of year in school for financial aid purposes, as the year in school for credit accumulation purposes could be skewed based on attendance status. However, the general pattern of results held across both definitions.

[4] I’m represented by the 2003-04 NPSAS cohort, where about 46% of first-year students on public university campuses lived in residence halls.

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.

One thought on “A Look at College Students’ Living Arrangements”

  1. There’s a lot about ’11-12 that’s unusual in ways that might contribute to more living with parents instead of off-campus. Median distance from home and working while enrolled all took sharp dips from ’08 (20mi to 14mi and 79% to 66%, respectively), but they continued to decline in ’16 while living off-campus recovered.

    Since residence patterns reverted while proximity to home and student employment continued to fall, it may be more about parents’ finances than anything else. Pre-’16 NPSAS doesn’t have much on that, but I’d suspect that parents’ ability to help with expenses was still feeling a post-recession hit that they’d mostly recovered from by ’15-’16. At the same time, full-time enrollment spiked, from 56.2% in ’08 to 61.3% in ’12 before returning to 57.3% in ’16, tracking with rates of living with parents but not employment; not quite sure what to make of that. More independent students might prefer lower short-term costs, or maybe some parents pressure students to go full-time, which is more effective when students are closer and more dependent.

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