Hoping To Boost Student Life, SMU Brings Sophomores On Campus | KERA News

Hoping To Boost Student Life, SMU Brings Sophomores On Campus

Dec 8, 2014

Sophomores at Southern Methodist University have a new rule this year: they’re required to live on campus along with the freshmen. To make room for all these students, the university has built five new dorms and is renovating more.

Traci Tyson from Plano recently shared a meal with a friend and checked out the parade of people she lives with.  

“I’m really excited to be in one of the new dorms because they’re really, really nice,” she said.

For $147 million, they should be nice. Every detail of the new dorms and dining hall is designed to bring the students together.

Julie Wiksten, an associate vice president, points out the 85 power outlets in the dining hall.

“We want people to feel like they can come hang," she said. "If they want to recharge their phones or recharge their laptop, they have the ability to do that."

The school hopes the students will meet up for late-night milkshakes and study groups and capture the flag – hoping they become friends with each other. It’s more of a challenge at college than you’d think. Young people are generally buried in their smartphones or chatting via Skype with their high school friends back home rather than meeting new people in their dorm.

Live at the college, and your life is the college

Brian Bridges is a researcher on what makes students successful in college, and finds that having friends on campus is huge. It’s all about building a community where you belong.

“They not only study together, but they build stronger ties to the community when they’re hanging out in this lounge area, or when they’re charging their phones,” Bridges said.

Bridges did this research when he was at the National Survey of Student Engagement. Now he’s a vice president with the United Negro College Fund. His data suggest that students who live on campus, even by force, feel more like college students and are more likely to graduate on time than the off-campus crowd. At Harvard, a whopping 97 percent of students live on campus. At Yale, 87 percent live on campus. At Columbia, it’s 94 percent.

“Students don’t have to go anywhere else to find entertainment, or to get their studies done, because their colleagues in their classes live down the hall or on the other side of the building,” Bridges said.

SMU cited this research when building these new dorms. There are positive signs that the investment could be worthwhile. Wake Forest University in North Carolina built new dorms and required more students to live in them last year, and has seen the campus activities flourish.

“Early returns are that we’ve accomplished what we were looking for,” said Donna McGalliard, dean of residence life and housing at Wake Forest. Only seniors at Wake Forest can live off campus. This year, most are staying on campus with everyone else.

“Every moment is touched by what they experience on the campus. And I do think colleges and universities are seeing a benefit of that,” McGalliard said.

Three years are required on campus at Duke; four years at Vanderbilt. SMU is looking at an elite club, and trying to get a ranking with the top 50 universities in the country.

Improving the food -- and dorm life

SMU may have to work to change the perception of on-campus living. Senior Spencer Ramsey explained why he shares an apartment with friends in the Knox-Henderson neighborhood of Dallas rather than living in the dorms.

“Once people know they can move off campus, they’ll look forward to it,” he said. “You can see it as a reward, that you’ve done your time.”

SMU hopes that good food and beautiful Georgian buildings can make on campus living less dorky and more grown up. It’s certainly got a grown-up price tag – add tuition to room and board, and freshmen and sophomores at SMU are paying more than $60,000 a year.

Amid a building boom, budget cuts

The SMU building boom comes as the university looks to cut $35 million in annual operating expenses. The university says most of that will be "reallocated to academic purposes," although it acknowledges some positions will be eliminated. 

SMU is also in the middle of a $1 billion fundraising campaign. Monetary gifts to the university help fund facilities, as well as new faculty positions, academic programs and scholarships. Those campaign gifts don't cover annual operating expenses, the university says. 

"As noted by Moody's in its latest rating analysis, expenditures to expand national prominence 'will enhance the competitive draw of the University' going forward,'" SMU president Gerald R. Turner wrote in a letter over the weekend to SMU alumni and parents.