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Record number of first-year U. students elect to live on campus this fall

SALT LAKE CITY— In an upper-story room of a residence hall on the University of Utah campus Thursday, three first-year roommates who had just been introduced, were attempting to divvy up the limited wardrobe and closet space in their dorm room.

It's one of the countless life lessons that college students experience the first time they move away from home. It's one of the reasons that Lori and Scott Boland, who live in Sandy, wanted their daughter Heather to live on campus her freshman year.

"Our daughter wanted to live here, get independent and be a part of the university. She felt that by living here, it would also make her want to stay here and succeed," Lori Boland said.

It turns out her instincts are backed by research.

Data recently presented to the university's board of trustees shows that U. students who live on campus have higher grade point averages throughout their college careers than peers who live off campus. Moreover, students who live on campus are 12 percent more likely to complete their college degrees.

Barb Remsburg, the U.'s director of housing and residential education, said national data supports the U.'s findings.

"There's a lot of research in regards to student retention, persistence in graduation and grades being one of those driving factors, which makes reasonable sense, right? If a student is doing well in class, they're likely to continue, find their path, feel that they can do it, that they have an ability to accomplish their goals," she said.

The University of Utah does not require first-year students to live on campus, primarily because it does not have enough student housing to accommodate the entire freshman class.

"Prior to the (2002 Winter Games) we had capacity to house around 1,200 students, with the first-year class definitely in excess of that. This year we're opening our residence halls with a capacity around 3,500 students with strategic plans currently in place to increase that number," said Remsburg.

Numbers of students electing to live on campus are growing. Heather Boland and her roommates Lauren Hart and Megan Slomsky are among more than 2,000 first-year students to live on campus, which is the largest group ever.

More than half of campus dwellers are Utah residents.

"Fifty-six percent of all the students in general that live on campus are from the state of Utah and 41 percent are from a commuting distance. We think about that Ogden to Draper and Magna to Park City as kind of that diamond. That's where a little over 1,300 students whose families live in that vicinity, live with us. They want 'the college experience,'" said Remsburg.

Jean Shapiro, of Phoenix, said she and her husband were insistent that their daughter Lauren live in a residence hall her first year of college.

Deciding to attend college out of state made dorm life an obvious choice, "but if we were in state, she'd have to as well. You meet people. You kind of get engrained to the culture of the university, which is fairly important. If we had stayed in Arizona, she would have been in the dorms there," Shapiro said.

For Utah students, many live off campus for financial reasons. Some have to work to pay for school or their families can pay for tuition and books but they are unable to also foot the cost of room and board. Some students choose to attend school part time and attend to other responsibilities, such as supporting their families or spouse.

While many commuter students complete their degrees and achieve their goals, there are clear benefits to attending school full time, Remsburg said.

"Going full time means that they have shorter timespan in which life could alter their course," Remsburg said. A student who attends college part time, "life happens along the way. The longer your timespan means the longer there’s opportunities for finances or birth of children or caring for parents that may take priority over education."

Nancy Hart said she lived on campus throughout her college experience and she hopes her daughter lives on campus at least two years.

"It's a good transition between living at home and being somewhat independent, but not totally on your own. It's a transition in life from being under your parents' wings to being an adult and learning some responsibilities and being on your own," she said.

While the U. cannot ask students to shoulder the costs that off-campus housing developments can offer such as swimming pools or hot tubs, the university offers a rich array of services and resources, Remsburg said.

The U. focuses on residential learning goals, which can mean helping students select their field of study, which is another key factor in timely completion of their degrees, and referring them to resources to help them reach their goals.

"It’s not about watching a movie in the lounge and having pizza. It has really shifted to engaging students like, ‘Hey, do you know there’s a career fair going on next week? You talked about needing to find a job. Let’s get you there,'" Remsburg said.

The staff also strives to create an atmosphere where all students feel welcome and supported, she said.

"We train and stand up our student leaders to help support students in that environment. In an off-campus housing complex, nobody is doing that."

In many respects, one of the most important aspects of residential living is helping students make a comfortable transition from living with their families to branching out on their own.

Lisa Slomsky said she hopes that dorm life helps her daughter make friends and connect with others in her major. "Anything to help them through their initial few months of their college experience."

As Jean Shapiro can attest, you just never know who you might meet in the dorms and how they may play a role in your future plans.

"We met in the dorms," Shapiro said of her husband, Dan.

"We've been married 25 years, so I guess it was good."