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MKThink Strategy is well known for its research on topics relevant to today’s leaders and administrators in the field of education. In 2006, the team observed a trend in student housing on college campuses: they noted an exponential increase in construction cost per bed, fueled by an increase in individual space and amenities. For many campuses, this “housing arms race” was making the prospect of growing the on-campus resident population increasingly daunting. While students prefer these building typologies, administrators wonder, “Are they a good investment?”


To answer that question, the MKThink Strategy team conducted a statistical study using National College Health Assessment data, which documented approximately 60,000 students from 50 U.S. Colleges and Universities to correlate student housing typologies with measures of physical, mental and emotional wellness. MKThink Strategy’s findings defined a set of recommendations for more effective student housing from both financial and wellness perspectives.

The team combined a number of qualitative sources[1] into an extensive database, adding nuance and depth with qualitative sources, such as university residence life administrator interviews and student surveys. Then they focused on two aspects of student wellness: physical environment (to what extent are residences designed to enhance the student experience?) and residential program (to what extent does a structured program improve wellness?) They defined an ideal residential experience as one where building spaces and configuration support program goals and activities while the programs and activities leverage the building’s attributes.

Study Findings

For the first dimension – the physical – residences were grouped into three typologies: Residential Hall, Apartments, and Residential Community. In Residential Halls, which average 63,212 gross square feet, more than half (54%) of the space is found in private rooms, located directly off high traffic double-loaded corridors. Shared spaces are located at near the single entry of the building and each floor, and there is little to no semi-private space. Apartments fulfill the student desire for their own space, with suites the dominant unit of organization. Many of the shared spaces and associated activities are moved into the suites, and private rooms occupy only 42% of the 63,487 gross square feet per building. Much more space (37%) is located in semi-private zones, with little to no shared public space. Residential Communities have the most diverse space portfolio, with a hierarchy of private, semi-private, and shared spaces. They are also nearly twice as large as typical Residence Hall and Apartment style buildings at an average of 118,551 gross square feet (GSF).

Residence Halls are the most efficient and therefore economical, requiring only 170 GSF per person. Apartments (331 GSF) and Residential Communities (350 GSF) demand significantly more space per person and add a $40,000 – $50,000 surcharge to the per student cost. How does that significant price differential interface with student wellness?

The MKThink Strategy team found that the physical environment had a significant impact (either positive or negative) on two components of individual wellness: social and emotional. For example:

  • Residence halls encourage community and interpersonal relationships
  • Extreme interpersonal interaction problems among freshman were higher in apartments than residence halls
  • Freshman attrition was reported higher in apartments than residence halls
  • A higher incidence of colds/flu occurred in apartments
  • Apartments are more expensive to build and yet they have a negative impact on student wellness.

At the same time, the availability of apartments positively affects enrollment figures, which directly impacts the financial wellness of an institution. During the residential selection process, incoming students ranked apartments over dorms.

For the second dimension – residential program – MKThink Strategy studies the role of residential programs, specifically those focused on learning, in the residential experience. The goals of residential learning programs are to facilitate the transition to University life, enable formation of connections (with peers, faculty, curriculum and university), and support the growth and maturation of students. Common traits among programs include faculty involvement, internal governance structure, organized recurring events, and frequent interaction. There are also significant difference among programs, such as organization around a specific theme (none, academic field of study, lifestyle interest, or culture/heritage), the participation process (random assignment, student choice, or application/selection), and the duration of involvement (freshman only, freshman/sophomore residents, junior/senior participation, four year residents).

How programs are related (or not) to residential facilities is another way programs were found to differ. Some exist independently of the residence (participants live in various locations and gather somewhere to interact), others are directly linked with the facility (all residents participates, the identity of the program is associated with the physical environment, and some physical changes may be made to accommodate the program), while still others are loosely affiliated (participants live in the same facility, perhaps on a single floor or wing). Still other facilities are specifically designed to support the specific goals and needs of the program.

Overall the MKThink Strategy team concluded that there are four critical success factors for improving student wellness through both the physical and programmatic dimensions of residential environments:

  • Enable exposure to and interaction with others
  • Balance of private and shared space
  • Circulation hierarchy
  • Create a variety of experiences
  • Instill a sense of pride and ownership
  • Sense of ownership through clear boundaries
  • Participation
  • Establish cultural continuity
  • Traditions
  • Physical design attributes


Residence life is a critical component of the student experience. Our research suggests that opportunities exist for innovative approaches to on-campus housing that can both improve the student experience and cost less, saving universities up to $20 million on housing for every 350 students. In a resource-constrained environment, the statistical analyses introduced by this study enable planners, designers, and administrators to make planning decisions based on an underlying analytic framework as they develop residential environments that are affordable and effective. Specifically, readers of this study are able to:

  • Identify how different residential typologies impact short- and long-term costs and the student experience
  • Identify specific residential environment attributes that have the greatest effect on the student experience
  • Understand opportunity areas for academic-residential integration and the associated costs and benefits
  • Incorporate new tools to measure residential environments and programmatic efforts as they relate to student wellness

[1] Sources included the National College Health Assessment, College Board, University supplied data, and the MKThink Strategy Academic Residence Database