First-year college students typically have less flexibility in choosing their housing compared to upperclassmen, as many schools require freshmen to live on campus as a way to help ease the adjustment.
Roommates are generally either requested or picked at random once students submit a compatibility survey covering, for example, cleanliness and sleep habits. But there’s sometimes another option for first-year students and beyond: applying to a living-learning community.
These residential communities provide students the opportunity to live with peers who share a common academic interest or hobby.
“One of the benefits of living on campus is that you’re developing a sense of belonging that is really intended to enhance your academic experience,” says Bobbie Denise Cole, assistant vice president of student life and Title IX coordinator at William Peace University in North Carolina and a board member of the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International. “There’s so much power in becoming connected to the campus environment and growing as a person outside of the learning that you’re doing in the classroom. And so living-learning communities are really intended to kind of take that experience to the next level.”
What Are Living-Learning Communities?
Learning communities are college residential programs that connect students with similar academic interests, identity or passions, like community engagement, outdoor recreation or environmental sustainability. These students often live on the same floor or wing of a residence hall. Depending on demand, some schools have entire buildings for living-learning community cohorts to live together.
Each community has different requirements, including enrolling in classes together, upholding a certain GPA or attending planned themed activities or workshops throughout the semester. Off-campus excursions are typically covered by the residence life office or college, but sometimes students must pay fees.
In many ways, being part of a living-learning community is similar to living in a traditional residential setting. However, the programming for living-learning communities is more intentional, says Victoria Gebel, director of residence life and community standards in residence life at Nazareth College in New York.
“The events that the (residential advisors) put on are going to be more catered towards that student’s particular interest,” she adds. “So for example, students who are interested in the leadership living-learning community may have bulletin boards or programs that are specifically geared towards growing their leadership skill set.”
Not only do living-learning communities provide an opportunity to build relationships with peers, they also connect students with faculty members outside the classroom.
“The faculty are a huge part of our living-learning communities,” says Ariel Leget, assistant director for academic initiatives and diversity education in the residence life department at Rutgers University—New Brunswick in New Jersey. “Oftentimes, faculty come into the residence halls to do some of the programming with students.”
Since their focus often revolves around helping with the adjustment to college life, living-learning communities are targeted more toward first-year students. For instance, many provide peer mentors – upperclassmen who routinely check on participants and create events.
“They are really keeping the pulse of the community and making sure everyone is OK in their transition” to college, Leget says.
Examples of Living-Learning Communities
Types of living-learning communities vary at colleges and universities across the country. For instance, Rutgers offers several that are culturally based, such as Asian American identities and images, French language and culture, Latin images and the Paul Robeson community, where students learn about the African diaspora.
“You don’t have to identify with any particular group. It’s about gaining a deeper knowledge about the particular culture,” Leget says.
The school also has theme-based housing, such as for students interested in broadcast meteorology or engineering.
Meanwhile, schools like East Carolina University in North Carolina have more academic living-learning communities available, like art and design, biology, business, chemistry and physics, criminal justice, education, engineering, nursing, kinesiology, music, theater and dance. These programs all have course requirements.
There are also some living-learning community options specifically open to upperclassmen or transfer students. ECU, for example, has a living-learning community called Quest, which is designed to help transfer students make a smooth transition.
Why Join a Living-Learning Community?
Students, particularly males, in living-learning communities are more likely than others living on campus to return to school the following year, according to a 2021 report by the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International.
Living-learning community participants are also more likely to become engaged in other aspects of campus life, like joining a club or taking on a leadership role, Gebel says. These students “may report a smoother transition to college life because they are already coming into a somewhat created community,” she adds. “It helps to ease some of that social anxiety.”
For students wondering if such an experience is the right fit for them, experts suggest reaching out to their chosen college’s residence life office to ask questions and learn more about program options and expectations.
“You are only going get out of it what you put into it,” says Peter C. Groenendyk, associate vice chancellor for campus living at ECU. “So you do want to be invested in being a member of that community.”
However, it’s not for everyone. “If they are not particularly interested in an LLC theme, they certainly wouldn’t want to sign themselves up for that because they are not going to be able to take as much out of the experience,” Gebel says.
How to Apply to a Living-Learning Community
Though it varies by institution, students typically apply to a living-learning community at the same time they apply for housing. For first-year students, that’s often during the spring semester of their senior year of high school.
Some communities are more competitive than others, so slots can be limited. Sizes vary from single digits to hundreds of students.
Applicants may be required to write an essay and uphold a certain GPA. Meanwhile, returning students typically need to demonstrate that they were active participants in their living-learning community during the prior year.
“At many institutions, college is what you make of it. And you want to take advantage of all the opportunities available to you,” Cole says. “For students already living in the residence halls anyway, why not take advantage of an opportunity that’s going to contribute positively to your college experience?”