May 28, 2020
Fall semester 2020 is shaping up to be an Alice in Wonderland adventure for new and returning college students. They're asking lots of questions, many of which remain unanswered at this point:
- Will my classes be in-person on campus, or online at home?
- When will Fall semester 2020 begin — early or at the regular time?
- If students return to campus, will there be fall sports, mainly football?
- What COVID-19-related restrictions will be in place?
- What will happen if there is a coronavirus outbreak on campus?
- Will costs be reduced if classes are held exclusively online?
And so forth. However, one of the biggest questions being asked by those students who will be returning to campus — and 67 percent of colleges reporting so far plan in-person classes this fall — is: Should I live on or off campus?
That question relates to some version of social distancing, one of the prime requirements to avoid COVID-19 infection. Close-quarter dorm living is particularly troublesome when it comes to communicable diseases, and COVID-19 is one of the most highly infectious viruses yet seen. That's what makes this choice so important for students and their parents.
For incoming freshmen who have never experienced dorm life, sharing living quarters with another person (or persons) can be a genuine culture shock. Granted, "normal" college life may be a thing of the past now, but at this point we can only speculate about how housing will be approached and regulated. So I'll approach the on-or-off-campus question in general terms.
How your college will handle the residential life issue remains to be seen, but many colleges require freshmen and sometimes sophomores to live on campus. Juniors and seniors usually have the option to live off campus, which for them may be a way to save money and possibly improve their social and academic circumstances.
I've experienced both sides of that coin. I lived in a dorm my first year of college and lived off campus my remaining undergraduate years. As recent high school graduates head to campus this fall, they'll be transitioning to a whole new domestic and social world, under the cloud of COVID-19.
For some, this may be no big deal. They already may have done summer college programs where they resided in dorms with one or several roommates. If so, the transition won't be as stark as it will be for those who have never had to share a living space with someone else — most likely, a complete stranger. If you're in the process of making a decision about where to live, the following pros and cons about living on campus (dorm life), along with my comments, may help you decide where to live.
- Easier to become involved on campus. Amen to this. During my sophomore through senior year, I commuted to campus from 45 miles away. I was married and my wife worked as a nurse at a hospital far from campus. I felt completely divorced from what was happening on campus: concerts, sporting events, parties, etc. That was a significant negative for me.
- Access to all the resources the campus offers (computer labs, library, etc.). This is an important advantage. Putting distance between yourself and these resources can lead to missed opportunities that can take a toll on academic performance.
- No parent-enforced curfew. If you're living at home, mom and dad will be keeping an eye on your comings and goings. Not so in a dorm, where you can be out all night or for days at a time. The obvious caution is, "Don't get hurt, sick or killed!"
- Easier to be a student worker while living on campus. Once again, the proximity factor has the advantage. You're probably more likely to land a job on campus if you don't need public transportation to get to and from it.
- Less of a commute to class. I had to drive for almost an hour to get from my home to my big university's campus. During one term, I had an 8:00 English class on a Monday morning. I look back now and wonder how I ever got up so early and made it to class on time. A short walk to class is better than a long drive.
- Meet with professors at their offices more often or even at their homes. Living far off campus, I discovered that my profs' office hours fell mainly during inconvenient times for me. Just when I needed to speak with a professor, I would find that I had a conflict with something at home. Living off campus, where you need to rely on public (or even private) transportation, can make it difficult to maximize faculty contact.
- Homesickness. This most likely would affect students who are within a reasonable distance from home. If you're going to a West Coast college and your home is on the East Coast, then you'll have to suck it up, since flying across America just because you miss your dog, cat, mom, dad, etc., is extremely impractical.
- Having to stick to a meal plan. This is an economic factor. Most colleges won't refund your account for uneaten meals. Breakfast may be the most missed meal on meal plans due to students' propensity to sleep as late as possible. The flexibility factor comes into play, too. If you're tired of Mystery Meat Mondays, you're probably going to spend your own cash on non-college food. That can add up, leading to a shortage of spending money and wasted meal plan dollars.
- Limited privacy. A middle-ground solution here is a private dorm room, but they can be hard to get, plus there's no guarantee that your little haven won't become a hangout for other dorm residents. If you don't study effectively amid noisy surroundings, dorm life can be quite distracting. It won't be like your bedroom at home, that's for sure.
- Not being able to get away from the campus environment. Even a big university can become way too familiar. This factor has been historically lauded as the motivation for the infamous college "road trip" (see the movie Animal House for details).
- Having to deal with roommates. This issue is worthy of an entire article. My freshman roommate was a chain smoker, and although he would put out his cigarette when I came back into our room, everything inside the room, most disturbingly my clothes, smelled of cigarette smoke. Of course, other issues can arise, such as dissimilar interests, quirky behavior, asynchronous sleep habits and even having to experience your roommate "commingling" with his/her significant other while you try to solve differential equations.
- Limited access to appliances like stoves, ovens, washers and dryers. While many colleges today provide amenities like this in common areas, it's not like home or the convenience of your own apartment. The kicker here is having to share with the general population of your dorm, especially in these days of COVID-19 dangers. That's something you can avoid by living off campus.
- Student housing restrictions on parties, drinking, etc. Granted, even apartments have landlord-based restrictions, but thanks to Resident Advisers (RAs) and the institutional rules they must enforce, the fun factor of dorm life can be highly limited. However, there's always Greek life!
Overall, deciding the issue of on- or off-campus living can make a big difference in your college experience. Don't take this decision lightly as you prepare to go down the rabbit hole of the Fall 2020 semester.
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