Episode 18: College Housing: What You Need to Know Before Applying
June 14, 2021
College is more than a place to learn, meet interesting people and grow. For most students, it's also where you'll live — perhaps for four years of your life.
Young people who may be accustomed to living in their own room at home will suddenly be sharing a room (and bathroom) with others.
That fact makes finding the right housing fit just as important as finding the right academic fit. So how do you do it?
In this episode of College Admissions Insider, we'll swing those doors wide open. Our guests are Stephen Apanel, Bucknell's Director of Housing Services, and Ashley Hubler, Bucknell's Assistant Director of Housing Services.
Listen as we discuss the benefits of off-campus and on-campus housing, specialty housing options like Affinity Houses, and roommate selection.
If you have a question, comment or idea for a future episode, email email@example.com.
Episode 18 Transcript
[00:00:07] BW: Welcome to College Admissions Insider, where we cover everything you need to know when starting, expanding or completing your college search. I'm Bryan Wendell from Bucknell University.
[00:00:16] BT: And I’m Brooke Thames, also from Bucknell University. This show is all about giving you a total toolkit to help you prepare for college.
[00:00:23] BW: Brooke, we both know that life at college is about more than the mix of electives and required classes that you need to graduate.
[00:00:31] BT: That's right, Bryan. In fact, there is one place on campus where students will spend more time than anywhere else. No, that's not the library — although you should also spend lots of time at the library. At some schools, they're called dorms. While at other schools, they're called residence halls. But if you live in one of these rooms on campus, you'll call them home.
[00:00:49] BW: That makes finding the right housing fit just as important as finding the right academic fit. So how do you do that? We've brought on a couple of experts to talk about just that.
[00:00:59] BT: Let's welcome today's guests, Stephen Apanel, Bucknell’s director of housing services, and Ashley Hubler, Bucknell’s assistant director of Housing services. Welcome to the podcast, Stephen and Ashley.
[00:01:09] SA: I'm happy to be here.
[00:01:11] AH: Thanks, Brooke. Thanks, Bryan.
[00:01:13] BW: Stephen, let's start with you. I know that at Bucknell, we guarantee on-campus housing for students for all four years, but that's not the case at every school. So can you go over the different on-campus versus off-campus considerations that students might want to really go over in their minds, on their lists, when comparing all the different schools?
[00:01:33] SA: Sure. I think the first thing to start with is to see if housing is required and how many years it’s required. Some universities and colleges may have one year, two years, or all four years like Bucknell does. Then when you know that answer, then start to dive into what each offers. So if you are living on campus, what do you get when you live on campus? For example, do you get Wi-Fi? Or what kind of dining comes with living on campus? Essentially, what do you have access to? Some schools might say that if you live on campus, you can access the gym or any of the athletic facilities at no cost. But if you live off campus, there may be a charge for that. So really exploring what you get when you live on campus.
The same, I would say, would go for living off campus. When you live off campus…Sometimes you may have a choice between living on and off campus, and trying to compare apples to apples is going to be key. If you're looking just at rent and looking just at the cost of a room on campus, do they equal? Maybe not, because a lot of times a university may have elements that are incorporated in there, like maybe you don't have to pay for laundry if you live on campus. But off campus, maybe you have to go to a laundry mat to do your laundry and pay for it at the same time.
The other thing to think about is when you're living either on or off campus is parking. If you're allowed to have a car, where would you put your car? If you are living off campus, how are you getting to campus? What is that going to look like? Depending on the environment, whether it's rural versus urban, do you have public transportation? Are you going to bring a bike? Is the bike going to work all nine months that you're on campus if you're going to live in an area that has a colder climate or a very wintery climate? So a lot to consider when trying to determine on campus versus off campus, but those are just some of the elements that I would start looking at.
[00:03:24] BT: Yeah. Talking a little bit more about some of those amenities and stuff that you mentioned there, we know that the housing experience extends beyond the four walls of a dorm room. So I wonder if you could tell us what kinds of amenities schools might be offering in their residence halls that students might have to look for?
[00:03:40] SA: Yeah. I think the first part is to start looking inside the room. What kind of furniture do you get with the room — bed versus dresser desks, desks, a desk chair and so on? Most schools have a standard desk, desk chair, wardrobe or closet, a dresser and a bed with a mattress. Beds are sometimes loftable, so they can go up and down. But then also start looking around the room — carpet versus no carpet, size of windows. It's my personal theory that every residence hall or dorm room should have a window. I think there's a flag there if you've come to your room, and there's no window. So I would definitely look for one of those.
Then start going outside the room. What kind of amenities are in the building? Is there a laundry within a building, or do you get to go somewhere else? Sometimes, the amenities that come with it, I mentioned this before, depend on the climate. Some schools may have rooftop pools because the climate has that, where other schools may have closets that are designed to fit skis. So what does that look like? Also, maybe some have gyms or dining options right within your halls, or they're part of the halls. Maybe the first floor is all retail and restaurants, where the upper floors, they’re more living. They're more where the students would live.
The amenities can keep growing. Sometimes, within housing, we call it the “amenities race” as far as how many things can we add on and put into housing to make it more attractive for students, but at the same time trying not to withdraw away from their focus on academics?
[00:05:11] BW: Yeah. I remember just thinking about the amenities in my own dorm room in college, like plugging the TV and realizing that I was getting like every channel right there. That was the wildest thing for me.
I went to a larger school, and that brings us to another good question, which is larger school versus smaller school. That question doesn't just pertain to academic offerings, does it, Ashley? Can you tell us a little bit about some of the housing differences that we might watch out for at a large school versus a small school?
[00:05:41] AB: Sure. I think that, again, just to reiterate what Stephen said, a lot of it is about amenities. So a bigger school oftentimes has a lot of different kinds of amenities, but there's also a plus and minus to everything, right? At a bigger school, you may have a few more of those bells and whistles, but you also have more students sharing each of those things, right? Our biggest residence hall on campus here at Bucknell is about 380 students. So having a laundry room in that area and having a fitness center in that area, those are the students sharing those things. But if you go to some bigger campuses, it could be 1,000 students in a building.
I think it really just comes down to personal preference, and what kind of community, and what are the things that are most important to you as you're seeking out those different options. Like Stephen said, what is offered to you and what do you want? For each student, what is going to make the most out of your housing experience?
[00:06:33] BT: Following up on that, plenty of colleges, but especially smaller schools like Bucknell, have what we would call specialty housing options like residential colleges like we have here at Bucknell that are themed or other themes, communities. So what should students be looking for when exploring those different kind of themed options?
[00:06:50] AB: Sure. There's a lot of different options, and there's a lot of different varieties of programs. Something that is really frequently referred to is living and learning communities, which those typically have an in-class and an out-of-class component. Usually, they're students that are taking a class together or are maybe in the same major that are both in classes together and then in their halls together, and may receive a different type of level of support or kind of academic focus in those areas. Sometimes, there is a more academic-based component. But sometimes, there are also things that are just themed or common interests based on social things, or just things that people want to do, or want to do outside of class.
On campus, our upper-class housing is more socially-based, and the themes are more communal and just kind of interest-based, where a lot of our first-year communities do have that academic component. I think, too, for students looking at housing, sure, what does your first year look like, but also what is available to you pass that point as well?
[00:07:46] BW: Once you start to look at the different types of residence hall options that are available at different schools, I know that involves a campus tour, and that's the most important thing people want to see on a campus tour. But as we're recording this kind of at the beginning of the summer, a lot of schools might be opening themselves back up for tours but not letting students in their residence halls just yet. Let's say either you're going on a tour that doesn't have a residence hall visit included or you're not yet ready to visit a specific school, how can families start exploring what the inside of these rooms look like, get a feel for what they might actually be like to live in?
[00:08:26] SA: I think your first resource is to find out what's online. Knowing and going prior to actually getting on campus. A lot of universities are going to like 3D models of what a room looks like, being able to kind of tour it, and so on. Get a good feel of what it looks like before you get on campus. Then when you get on campus, walk around the outside of the building. You still will be able to do that, and then get a feel of kind of like what it's going to be like to live there and see what that's like.
The second is try and talk to current students that are already there. They've already experienced that they've already lived in it. They've slept in the beds. They've used the drawers. They've opened the doors. So they have this feeling. They know what it's like to live there, so they will give you the best answer of what that's like. If you can't find them while you're on campus, there's plenty of opportunities to get a hold of them via social media. Whether it's Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat, or something, you will be able to get hold of current students. A lot of times, colleges universities have students accessible to answer those types of questions in whatever format, not only for students but also for families as well.
[00:09:25] BT: Speaking of having resources accessible, I mean, we know it's such a big adjustment going from, in many cases, living at home to largely living on your own at college. But students aren't doing this alone. Ashley, can you tell us a little bit about the kinds of support and resources that students have within that residence hall community that they'll be moving into?
[00:09:43] AB: Yeah, sure. There's a lot of different layers of support that are kind of built into a lot of these residential programs. There are things that are specific from school to school, but then there are things that are pretty general. Overall, you should be asking about does your hall have a residential advisor — whatever it may be called, an RA, whatever the acronym is —who's a peer mentor? Who's also another student who gets it, who understands we're bouncing this class thing, and social thing, and home stuff? Maybe you work on campus. There's a lot of layers there and a lot of juggling going on.
The RA is typically the best support for students. They live in the halls with them on their floors. They're the neighbor. They're sharing the bathroom in the morning. So a lot of times, that's a student's first stop when it comes to questions or issues or concerns. But above that and obviously when there are emergencies or there are things that happen that are kind of out of a student scope, there's also professional staff member that oversees each area. Most of those staff members actually live on campus and are on call. So it's like full adults that are providing support to students and the RA staff. Then we also typically have a public safety team, or campus safety, or campus police that are obviously here and available 24/7. So I know that there's a lot of different resources available, whether a student is looking for that peer-to-peer support or a more professional kind of staff member support.
I think, too, when you're thinking about not only that kind of emotional community connection but also the physical space that you're living in. So sometimes, we have students that are coming to campus who may have some type of medical or disability-related need, meaning they need a specific type of living space. Not necessarily concerns about kind of that emotional support, but the physical structure that they're going to be living in needs to support them so that they are set up for success.
I know at Bucknell, we have our Office for Accessibility Resources that works with students and works with us all summer long to make sure that students are placed in an environment — a physical environment — will help them to be successful, not only in the physical space, but then also you can address the other things and the other emotional stuff that comes with it.
[00:11:54] BW: Ashley talked about the RA who lives down the hall. Now, Stephen, let's talk about the person who lives right across the room from you, which is the roommate. I know schools have different policies when it comes to that roommate selection process, so can you walk us through some of those different methods?
[00:12:10] SA: Yeah. I'd be happy to. First, there's a method called self-selection. This is where a school will allow students to go into some sort of digital space and create a profile to try and match themselves with other students. This puts the onus on the student to be able to find a match for themselves. Other colleges and universities will have a format to collect information from a student about their living characteristics. Think of what time do you go to bed, how much do you work on a computer? Maybe finding out a little bit about you, like your political interests, the type of music you listen to. Do you like to spend time outside, inside? All sorts of things. Then they use this information to find another individual who is similar to live with you.
Each method is supporting typically a school's mission and goals. So if there's, for example, schools that have a academic mission and a core component to it, maybe all incoming students take a similar class, they may house students based on that class to create a living and learning community, where others may house based on special interests. That may be an attribute that you determine in your questionnaire that you fill out, so maybe there's going to be an arts floor or something along those lines. Each one has its different advantages and disadvantages. But at the end of the day, they work pretty much equally in being able to find a good roommate and a good match.
[00:13:32] BT: Yeah. For schools that have such a robust and sophisticated roommate matching process, can you tell us any more details about some of those specific considerations you're looking at when pairing student A with student B?
[00:13:43] SA: Yes. This is where we thrive a little bit. I think there's a delicate balance. This is not my question.
[00:13:52] BT: I was ready. This is all editable. It's fine.
[00:13:54] BW: Yeah. We're good. We're good.
[00:13:58] AB: Stephen talked a little bit about the self-selection part, but for some schools and universities, they actually match people for you. At Bucknell, we really believe in that kind of traditional college experience where you don't know your roommate. You're not from the same town. You're coming in and doing this fresh, right? That’s also something to consider — are you going to be able to pick, or is that kind of done for you?
Like Stephen said, we do have a questionnaire that students fill out. Then we kind of use a combination of our hands, and looking at things, and doing things manually, and also a system that will help us evaluate good roommate matches. There is a delicate balance there with questions to ask, and things that we want to know, and factors that we take into consideration. If there's too many questions, we would never get a roommate match. There's no way that people are going to match on 30 out of 30 things, right? Something that we focus on are the most common living habits and kind of interests, and also things that we feel cause the most friction at times.
Our questionnaire only has about 10 questions on it. Like Stephen mentioned, bedtime, guests, cleanliness of the room, those are things that often can cause friction. So our goal is to have our students who are coming into spaces be on the same page for about half of those things. That’s kind of how we do it on our end. There's no such thing as the perfect roommate match, but we do our best to have students’ interests or habits align in some of these areas to try to prevent conflict right out the gate. But it's important that students are talking to each other ahead of time, and are kind of making those arrangements and establishing those expectations for each other.
[00:15:39] BW: Yeah. I think you guys do a great job. The students I've talked to have said that even if they didn't become best friends, they got along really well and had a productive year. So I know the goal isn't always making these two people friends for life but letting them kind of support each other through the academic year. I want to go back to something you mentioned, something that Ashley mentioned, which was about connecting before move in. Is that a good idea to go ahead and reach out and connect with your roommate to be before that move in day begins?
[00:16:10] SA: Yes, yes and yes. There's a lot of items to talk about prior to move in. We always suggest discussing each other's interests first — why they chose the school that they're going to and so on — to kind of get to know each other a little bit. Then you want to start diving in and talking about what it's going to be like living together. For example, if we have guests over, how long should they stay? How many guests are we going to allow? What time do I like to go to bed versus what time you'd like to go to bed? How do you study? Do you like music on in the background? Do you not? Another one that could be a bit of something to explore is will you eat in the room? Some individuals don't like it when there's another person eating in their room. This may be new because maybe at home you never ate in your bedroom, but now when you're at college, maybe you do.
One of the things — Bryan, you started to highlight this — that we always say is like best roommates are not always best friends. Now, we have about 1,000 first year students. So every year, we do about 500 roommate pairings. We've got it down to a pretty good science of what we're kind of looking for. The goal for us, for roommates, is civility and harmony within that shared living space, not so much about being best friends. If you become best friends about it, we think that's a great attribute, and we're very happy that it happened. But we're really trying to strive for civility and harmony.
[00:17:27] BT: But there will be sometimes instances where a roommate selection or a roommate pairing maybe doesn't quite fit. I'm wondering about what happens in those instances where roommates are kind of having a really hard time kind of figuring out that civility and harmony part, or when they maybe just have some irreconcilable differences.
[00:17:47] AB: Yeah, absolutely. I think a huge part of it is getting in front of some of the conflicts, right? I think that students in the name of kind of being nice, and I don't want to rock the boat, and I just kind of want to let it go…We always encourage students to talk about things and talk about before it comes to conflict, right? So we offer a roommate agreement for students as just kind of a starting place of, “Listen, these are some things that people disagree about sometimes, and you're going to have to come to the middle on that and determine what's going to be acceptable in your living space.” That’s step number one, and that's available on move-in day for roommates to be able to sit down and talk about some things before there is that friction.
If you do disagree and things do escalate, that's okay, we're human. But it's important that you're kind of revisiting those expectations. Also, don't knock a chore wheel, that's important. However you are going to work with things and your living space is fine if it works for the two of you. But there are some times where roommate matches just don't gel. Like Stephen said, we have 1,000 first year students coming in. One or two may not work out. But, again, that's where you want to use that RA support. That's where you need that community director support or whoever your professional staff member is. They are the resident experts in trying to figure things out and help people get on the same page.
A question to ask maybe before you come and start talking to your roommate is what happens when it doesn't work out. Is there an opportunity to move, or maybe to do a room change or a room swap? How is it decided who moves? What if someone doesn't want to? Then what happens? So I think it's important for students to be aware of that process. But that student support part, that's going to be the part that they really need to lean on. The RAs are going to be able to help them navigate that if a room swap is appropriate. If it's time for them to maybe be introduced to a new roommate and see if that would be a better fit. Or if they're going to try to stick it out, what do we need to do to kind of get us from now until a room is available? Because there are some times when there's just not a spot. So how do we kind of meet in the middle there?
[00:19:53] BW: It sounds like you all are hoping for the best but prepared for when those issues do arise. That's great.
[00:19:59] AH: For sure.
[00:20:00] BW: For our last question, let's kind of go rapid fire, and I'd love to hear from both of you on this: What is that one best piece of advice that you'd give to someone in high school right now about college housing? Stephen, let's start with you.
[00:20:15] SA: I think the first thing they need to do is kind of reflect on how they live, and be honest about it with others and also with themselves. So if you are neat, say that you’re neat. If you're messy, then say that you're messy. Honesty is going to go a long way with what you're looking for in a living situation. I would say sometimes the challenges that we run into between roommates is one would say that they were neat, but when they showed up, they may not be —or the opposite will go through. That housing questionnaire that you need to fill out, that's pretty vital to us in our field. We use that a lot to kind of really try and find a good match, so you really want to fill that out.
We also find from time to time that mom or dad may want to fill that out for you. That's not something that we would encourage. This is your experience, so this is your time to tell us who you are and a little bit about you. We really want you to be honest with yourself about who you are.
[00:21:11] BW: Ashley?
[00:21:12] AH: Yeah. I think for me, I would say help us help you. Like Stephen was saying, we have 1,000 first year students coming in every year, and we do the best that we can to put the support resources in place and have the information available. But sometimes, we may not know what you need or what questions you have that we're not addressing. So I think it's important for students, number one, be the person reaching out, right? When you make that transition from high school to campus, sometimes maybe you're used to your family really supporting you, and reaching out, and kind of doing things on your behalf. But this is your time, so be the person that's reaching out and asking the questions and figuring out who's the best person to go for this. It's going to help you by the time you get here to be able to figure out how to navigate campuses, and when you run into that road block, who's the best person to ask?
I think it's really important that students are reaching out and being proactive and asking. What are your questions and concerns? What are things that are popping up that you don't know where to find it or who to ask? Sometimes, in housing in the summer, we become kind of a triage for everyone's questions, and we're so fine with that because I may not know the answers, but I'll get you to the person who does. Ultimately, we all just want students to be successful. So whatever you need coming into this and whatever concerns you have, reach out so we can help.
[00:22:30] BT: Awesome. Yeah. That all sounds like really great advice. I think this, on the whole, has been a really great discussion. I think we've given students so much to consider when looking at housing. Well, thank you so much, Stephen and Ashley, for being our guests and walking us through that.
[00:22:43] AH: Of course. Happy to be here.
[00:22:43] SA: Yeah. Happy to be here. Yeah, it was fun.
[00:22:46] BW: Thanks for our listeners out there for checking out this episode. If you enjoyed it and you haven't already, we'd love for you to rate, subscribe, and share our podcast.
[00:22:55] BT: If you happen to be listening to this podcast on our website, which is bucknell.edu, we would love for you to subscribe using your favorite podcast app as well. Just search for College Admissions Insider to make sure that you don't miss an episode.
[00:23:08] BW: We'll be back in two weeks with another new episode. Until then, you can contact us anytime. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd love for you to use that email address to share your questions or even ideas for future episodes.
[00:23:24] BT: Finally, you can follow Bucknell on all of the socials @bucknellu on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You can also follow our student-run Instagram account, which is @iamraybucknell. You can find all those links in the show notes.
[00:23:37] BW: Thank you so much for listening. See you next time.