USF wants freshmen on campus

If the board approves the new policy, most first-year students would live in dorms.

Published October 18, 2007

TAMPA -- Starting in fall 2009, all University of South Florida freshmen from outside the Tampa Bay area likely will have to live on campus their first year.

USF administrators are recommending the new policy for the main campus in Tampa, and USF's board of trustees will consider the measure in coming weeks.

If trustees approve the plan as expected, it will be one more step in USF's ongoing efforts to shed its "commuter school" label and create a more traditional college experience.

"It would help us dispel this persistent rumor that we are a commuter campus," said Bob Spatig, director of admissions for USF. "We're just not."

Between 70 and 75 percent of USF Tampa's 38,521 students live within 2 miles of the campus, typically in apartment complexes marketed to students, Spatig said.

"We call them resi-muters."

Still, only 4,400 students actually live in USF's residence halls.

The new policy likely would bring an additional 500 students to campus, said Dorie Paine, associate director of USF housing. "And we could see more if Hillsborough and Pasco students see that's what everyone else is doing."

The policy would take effect in fall 2009, when USF will open a 1,000-bed residence hall with ground-floor dining.

Adding more students will help enliven campus, boost student involvement and improve retention and graduation rates, say USF administrators pushing the change.

"They connect more, they persist more, they graduate faster," Paine said. "They are more successful."

Studies show that students who live on campus are more likely to complete their degrees -- and in a more timely manner -- than off-campus students. At USF, retention and graduation rates are consistently higher for campus residents than commuters. Campus residents also tend to get more involved in university activities and clubs, and they end up with higher grade point averages. Socially, living on campus helps students develop relationships during the tough transition between high school and college.

Just ask freshman Ashley Parkerson of Sarasota. She moved into a residence hall program for business majors this fall and couldn't be happier.

"Living on campus, you definitely get more involved," she said. "You talk to a lot more people, and you definitely know more about opportunities here."

The proposed requirement would apply to all new first-year students from outside Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas. USF officials will consider exceptions for first-year students who are over 21, married, enrolled part-time, or serving in the military.

USF's St. Petersburg campus already requires freshmen from 30 miles away or more to live in the residence hall that opened last fall. State universities including New College in Sarasota, Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, and Florida A&M in Tallahassee also have freshman requirements. The University of Central Florida "encourages" but doesn't require its first-year students to live on campus, and about 60 percent of freshmen choose the residence halls, said spokesman Grant Heston.

But there are challenges, too, with having more students on campus day and night. USF's police department would have more responsibilities, yet it struggles to recruit and retain officers. There are 13 vacancies.

USF also lacks some of the social amenities important to college students these days.

USF is spending more than $50-million to revamp its student union.

But the editorial board at the Oracle, USF's student paper, complained this week that USF is losing prospective students to colleges like the University of Central Florida, which just spent $300-million on dorms, an arena, a football stadium, and a Main Street of retail and restaurants.

USF's dining amenities "are virtually nonexistent during evenings and on weekends," the Oracle declared, because the most popular campus eateries close. "The quality of life for resident students at USF must be improved if the University wants to attract more resident-students, a goal of president Judy Genshaft and other administrators."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.