Alan Reifman, Ph.D.

Alan Reifman Ph.D.

On the Campus

Dormitory Life: A Microcosm of Young-Adult Development?

Helicopter parents, coed housing, drinking and sex among research topics

Posted Aug 01, 2011

At many universities, August brings the ritual of "move-in day," when freshman students and their parents arrive at campus residence halls, boxes in tow. Beyond just providing a roof over students' heads, however, dormitories increasingly are being seen as a laboratory of human behavior during emerging adulthood -- the transition process to full adulthood. Separation from parents, the temptations of coed dorms, and what students' possessions say about their personalities are among the topics drawing the attention of researchers.

During emerging adulthood, college students are expected to become increasingly autonomous from their parents. Yet, many parents -- often at their students' request -- remain closely involved in students' day-to-day activities, whether by cell phone, text message, Skype, or other communications media. For the last couple of years, my students and I have been studying these kinds of "helicopter parent" behaviors, as have several other researchers. Other scholars whose work I am most familiar with in this area include Marjorie Savage, Barbara Hofer, and DenYelle Kenyon.

I don't recall any parents attending new-student orientation with me and my classmates at UCLA 31 years ago. Today, in contrast, not only do many parents attend such activities, but universities host family/parent weekends and even have offices devoted full-time to parent relations. Leaving their children behind indeed appears to be a major adjustment for parents and, in fact, some colleges have created closing ceremonies for move-in and orientation activities that give parents a nudge to "get lost."


The question of whether universities should house their students in coed vs. single-sex residence halls has also been in the news lately, as Catholic University of America president John Garvey announced in a Wall Street Journal article (subscription required) and discussed in a National Public Radio interview (free audio) his decision to discontinue coed dormitories at his school (thanks to Texas Tech psychology graduate student Erin McCrory for bringing this story to my attention).

In addition to philosophical arguments about "intellect and virtue," Garvey cited research findings purporting to link coed dorms to binge-drinking and multiple-partner sexual activity. The study in question appeared in a 2009 issue of the Journal of American College Health and was conducted by Brian Willoughby and Jason Carroll (news release). The study appears well-done. However with correlational studies such as this one, in which students at five universities were surveyed about their residence-hall type, drinking, and sexual behavior, different possible causal interpretations are often possible.

Willoughby and Carroll's main findings were that residents of coed dorms drank more heavily and had more sexual partners, on average, than did those who lived in single-sex dorms. However, when other variables such as demographic characteristics and religiosity were statistically held constant, residence-hall type explained only 2-4% of the variation in binge drinking and sexual partners. Also, it is unclear if the different kinds of housing environments actually cause excessive drinking and sexual behavior, or if students already inclined to risk-taking behavior select themselves into coed housing. The authors consider, but largely reject, the selection explanation:

Students who are more prone to risk-taking may be more likely to request co-ed housing, whereas students who are less prone to risk-taking select into gender-specific housing. Although this explanation may play some role in explaining the association between college housing type and risk-taking, several features of this study suggest it does not play a large role. [One argument is that] housing offices from several universities have reported that almost no students are currently requesting gender-specific housing. Therefore, the majority of students living in gender-specific housing were placed there by university housing offices, not based on their personal request (p. 245).

Interestingly, Willoughby was quoted in the NPR piece that his research does not imply coed dorms should simply be abolished. And, as also described by NPR, there are also those who feel coed dorms have beneficial aspects.


Finally, there are researchers who look for clues about people's personalities, values, and attitudes from their possessions and how they display them in their housing and work units (e.g., tidiness, organization). As this article from a few years ago on move-in day at the University of Kansas points out, students appear to be bringing more of their stuff to college than ever before, from rice steamers to Wii video-game set-ups.

University of Texas psychology professor Sam Gosling, author of the 2009 book Snoop, has conducted extensive research on the inferences people make about others from viewing their living and working spaces, and how accurately the spaces reflect the owners' true characteristics. More so than most research I'm aware of, Gosling's has created a torrent of national interest. Gosling's research is also reminiscent to me of an article from nearly a quarter-century ago by Deborah Prentice, entitled "Psychological Correspondence of Possessions, Attitudes, and Values" (abstract).


So there you have it. College residence halls are not just places for students to live, but also real-world laboratories for faculty and graduate students to get their research done!



About the Author

Alan Reifman, Ph.D.

Alan Reifman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University.

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