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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges, collegiate houses, and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. For more about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

Susan Painter on the Psychology of College Spaces

My colleague Susan Painter, who kindly invited me to speak at the annual meeting of the Society for College and University Planning two years ago, is an architectural psychologist who has done very good work on issues relating to campus housing and education. Today’s edition of The Chronicle Review carries an interview with Susan—“Dorm Therapy”—about trends in campus housing, including residential colleges. (Many thanks to two Collegiate Way readers who pointed me to the interview today.)

Some excerpts from the full text appear below, with a few of my comments interspersed. The interviewer is Chronicle staff reporter Piper Fogg. I hope Susan’s important work will continue to receive the attention it deserves.

Dorm Therapy

A design psychologist helps colleges create spaces where students live and learn

For colleges eager to attract the best students, the quality of student housing is a key selling point. But that shouldn’t mean putting a Jacuzzi in every dorm, warns Susan Painter, a design psychologist. Painter, who holds a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology, uses her knowledge of human behavior to advise colleges on building design. Give students too many amenities, she says, and they’ll hole up in their rooms instead of participating in campus life. A senior planner at AC Martin Partners, a Los Angeles architecture firm, and a principal at her own design-psychology practice, Painter talked with The Chronicle Review about how colleges can make smart design decisions.

What are you are trying to accomplish with student housing?

We are trying to create a situation in which students can form social connections—friendships, mentorships. We’re trying to achieve a good balance between learning to be independent but also learning to live with other people.

Part of the program of student residences is not to smooth every way for every student. The conflicts that are naturally going to arise around who left their dishes in the sink, or who is messy, who is neat, who is playing music, and who wants to study—all of those kinds of things are part of the skills those students are learning.

Luxury dorms are becoming very popular these days—rooms tricked out with all the amenities, like wireless access, private bathrooms with full tubs, gyms in the dorm. Is this a good trend?

This has mixed reviews. The universities are trying to find a way to distinguish themselves from their competitors. And what people say to us all the time is, Well, the students come from a home where they have their own room and their own bathroom and they have their own everything. But to give them everything they want is probably not the best way of raising a child. […]

So you think a requirement [to live on campus] is a good idea?

People aren’t going to go for that. This isn’t the 50s anymore. But what your job is, as a university, is to make the living situation so attractive and such an important and integrated part of the college experience that everybody is going to want their kid to live on the campus, at least for a year. Really, they should be living there for two years. [And I think even longer. —RJO] And so, what that means to me is a program that does not necessarily depend so much on the luxury bricks and mortar [John Ruskin would agree. —RJO], but is a program that’s based on the kind of residential college programs that we see at Oxford and Cambridge, and at Yale and Harvard and Princeton, where you enter a college and you start as a freshman. That becomes your home away from home. You’re being asked to connect to 200, 300, 400 people, and that’s something that students can do.

What about the idea that you can have very small rooms, almost like closets, with a bed and a dresser, and then have a common room in the middle? So you’re getting the experience of having roommates, or suite mates, but you have your own place to sleep?

[…] We did have an experience in talking with one of the large state universities in San Diego. Theirs is pretty much a luxury dorm with a swimming pool. It looks like Club Med. They had these suites where they had eight people. It included a living room, kind of an eating area, and actually a kitchen. And the university was not happy with this, even though it’s brand-new construction and very beautiful. The people who run the housing program have really encountered a lot of problems. They find that the people don’t leave their suite. That there’s no way for the residential counselors to have any kind of surveillance over what the kids are doing in there. [Alas, that should have been educational common sense in advance, but when universities place marketing come-ons to students—“we give you what you want”—ahead of educational objectives, it isn’t surprising that the result is disappointing. See also the Collegiate Way’s notes on retention of students in residence (§1.3.3). —RJO]

People are probably having huge parties in their suite. Especially with a kitchen and a fridge that can hold beer.

Exactly. The university said, “We wish we hadn’t done this.” I mean, it’s hard to learn those lessons when you spend $25-million or more putting up a residence. I trained as a research psychologist. And I have always done a lot of observational research, because I think that if you watch the way people use space, you can learn the lessons you need to learn. [Amen, my friend. —RJO]

For some additional commentary on the psychological value of cohesive social environments in education, see the previous Collegiate Way posts on the importance of adults, social isolation in modern society, best practices in student care, social cohesion and the prevention of injury, and psychological resilience.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021