MSU’s Decision to Have Sophomores Live-On Is Part of New Program to Reach Across Grand River Ave.

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Photo of Vennie Gore courtesy of MSU

MSU's campus and Vennie Gore, MSU's Senior Vice President for Residential and Hospitality Services and Auxiliary Services.

Michigan State University’s change of housing policy requiring sophomores to live on campus starting in the fall of 2022 will ultimately net around 1,500 more students residing on campus according to Vennie Gore, MSU Senior Vice President for Residential and Hospitality Services (RHS) and Auxiliary Services. 

Those 1,500 additional students — a figure 25% lower than the previous estimate shared with ELi  — will net roughly $15 million in additional annual revenue for the MSU RHS budget, Gore said in an interview with ELi last week. 

Gross revenues in a “normal year,” Gore said, are around $272 million. He added that the financial benefit from requiring more students to live on campus is consequently not a significant boost and said the decision was not made because of financial motives or concerns. 

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s not even 15 percent [of the RHS budget]. So the reality of it is ‘no,’” Gore said when asked if the decision was driven by financial considerations. “Does it give us predictability? Yes. But from a financial perspective, it’s not like a big boost in our arm.” 

In addition to discussing the baseline financial implications of MSU’s decision with ELi, Gore expanded on the university’s desire for a better “student success ecosystem” and how the sophomores-on-campus policy plays a role in that. He also talked about the effects Covid-19 has had on enrollment and student life.

After our interview, Gore shared with us a presentation from MSU on the rationale and research behind the decision to have sophomores live-on. According to the slides provided, there is a “causal relationship between a second year [living] on campus and student success.” MSU “had roughly 60 fewer students from each class persist when they moved off campus their second year,” and the benefits are most pronounced for African-American students and first-generation students, although all groups showed benefit. You can see the presentation here.

Here’s what we learned speaking with Gore last week.

The decision to have sophomores live on campus is part of a broader effort to better support students academically.

The primary group designed to benefit from the two-year-living-on decision would be the sophomores living on campus who otherwise might rent an apartment or house with their peers. Just by keeping students physically on the south side of Grand River Ave., Gore said, makes it easier for the university to reach them with support and for sophomores to reach out for help.

“It also gives us the ability to do some purpose-driven things with career services,” Gore said. He explained that many students come to MSU thinking they want to major in one area but then find themselves needing a different major by the second year. Being on campus provides more structured opportunities to smoothly transition to a better-fit in terms of a major.

The two-year-living-on policy will provide exceptions for students to reside off campus in a fraternity house, sorority house, or student coop house. This is something East Lansing Mayor Aaron Stephens has suggested gives MSU leverage over Greek houses and coops — the university will have power to revoke the sophomore live-on exception for a house, effectively serving as a cudgel if a house behaves badly.

Gore didn’t specifically address that notion when asked about it. He did, however, say that the exception allowing sophomores to live in Greek houses and coops actually provides a window for the university to provide similar services as the ones provided to on-campus students. 

Because the sophomores living in Greek houses and coops need to be specifically granted the exception, MSU will have a record of which sophomores are living in which group houses. Thus, the university can start to “include the off campus community” within its academic support provisions, Gore said.

“Now, this allows for us to extend our student success program off-campus, which we haven’t been able to do in past years.” It allows the university to undertake “more than just the off-campus judicial stuff,” he said.

Currently, most of the fraternity houses are occupied by sophomores with few upperclassmen to act as “mentors,” Gore said, as they’ve opted to live elsewhere off campus. He said there isn’t quite the same problem with sororities, because most have “house mothers.” 

The university has thought “really hard” about implementing methods to try and mimic a similar structure with fraternities, Gore said. He alluded to the possibility of having a live-in graduate student in each house, something Gore said was the practice at the University of South Carolina when he attended school there. That way you don’t have “a bunch of 19-year-olds making it up as they go along,” Gore said.

Gore also suggested the university might begin partnering with landlords of large apartments to continue expanding the scope of off-campus academic support. 

“I think that one of the things we’re going to be allowed to really focus [with this change] on is the student-success ecosystem,” Gore said, “which we, you know, frankly, haven’t been doing beyond the campus boundaries. So, we’ve done that on the residential side, but when you cross Grand River [Ave.], we haven’t necessarily done that.”

Enrollments are expected to stay pretty steady post-Covid-19, Gore said.

That would mean a continued undergraduate population of around 40,000 students, plus 10-11,000 professional and graduate students. 

“Our goal is to maintain that slow, steady state for the on-campus presence,” Gore said.

If there is an enrollment expansion, Gore said, it’s likely to be in the digital space as Covid-19 pushed MSU into offering more and more courses online. Such courses post-Covid would mainly be for non-traditional students, Gore said, such as someone living and working elsewhere who still wants to earn an MSU degree.

“If we see growth, I think we’ll probably see growth in the online space, not necessarily in the East Lansing [campus] space,” Gore said. 

When asked if MSU was currently seeing a decline in enrollment, Gore didn’t answer directly, but said enrollments are dependent on the state of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Gore speculated that if the vaccine rollout continues to accelerate and things can be closer to “normal” in the fall, MSU might actually see an uptick in enrollment.

He shared an anecdote about sitting in on an in-person class at MSU and witnessing firsthand how badly students desired being back in the classroom.

“I sat with a group of students today, [at an] in-person class, and you could see in their face, man, they’re just ready to be back normal here,” Gore said. “And all of them recognize what they need to do. I mean, they’re the rule followers — so they want to be back. And then, you know, I asked them how many of them will get vaccinated. Everyone in the room raised their hand because they want to be normal again.” 

Alice Dreger contributed reporting to this article.

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