National Study of Living Learning Programs


Results From the National Study of Living-Learning Programs

The National StudyWhat is it?

The NSLLP represents the most comprehensive effort to understand the contributions of L/L programs to the experiences of undergraduate students. Seeking to fill the void of literature regarding how participation in a L/L program may affect students on a range of student outcomes across different types of L/L program and institutional contexts, the NSLLP represents the first multi-institutional, multi-program, and multi-method research project on these popular interventions in undergraduate education.

The National StudyA Short History

Like most other assessments of L/L programs, the NSLLP began as a single-institution study at the University of Michigan in 1999. While developing the Michigan L/L assessment, it became apparent that what was really needed was a multi-institutional examination of L/L programs to mitigate the limited generalizability of single-institution and single-program findings. With an initial grant from the Association of College and University Housing Officers International (ACUHO-I) from 2001-2005, a team of researchers led by Dr. Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas from the University of Maryland began the development of a national study of L/L programs. The original collaborative team included Aaron M. Brower (University of Wisconsin), William J. Zeller (University of California, Irvine), Mary Hummel (University of Michigan), and Merrily Dunn (University of Georgia).

In 2007, the research team fielded the largest-ever NSLLP. With generous funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Association of College and University Housing Officers International, College Student Educators International (ACPA), and Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA), that year’s National Study involved almost 50 institutions and more than 600 L/L programs nation-wide.

Schools in the 2007 NSLLP

What Concepts Did We Study?

The research team relied upon a conceptual framework known as the Astin 1991, 1993 I-E-O college impact model to help guide the design of the 2007 National Study. This model includes outcomes (student characteristics after exposure to college), which are thought to be influenced by both inputs (demographic and pre-college characteristics, beliefs, and expectations) and environments (the various programs, policies, relationships with faculty and peers, and other educational experiences in which students are engaged).

What Concepts Did We Study?Inputs

Because L/L participants come to college with diverse pre-college perceptions and experiences, or inputs, they respond differently to the campus environments that influence student outcomes. The inputs measured by the 2007 National Study included:

What Concepts Did We Study?Environments

The campus environments believed to shape student outcomes included:

What Concepts Did We Study?Outcomes

Finally, the 2007 NSLLP measured a series of outcomes that participating in an L/L are thought to help students achieve. These included:

How We Executed the 2007 NSLLP

The 2007 NSLLP had four parts, each with a special focus on the role that L/L programs may play in facilitating the success of women in STEM fields. Those parts included:

  1. A survey of L/L programs to conduct a trend analysis of programs’ features,
  2. A baseline survey of current L/L participants, focusing on the immediate impact of L/L programs,
  3. A follow-up survey of participants from the 2004 NSLLP to examine the potential long-term impact of L/L programs; and
  4. Site visits to L/L programs identified as exemplary by the survey data.

The survey data were collected in 2007, and the campus site visits took place in 2008. It is important to note that this manual only presents the quantitative findings from the 2007 NSLLP baseline survey. For information on prior data collections, see: The Live Learn Study.

The Student Survey

Using lists provided by participating institutions, two groups of students were contacted: (a) those participating in L/L programs, and (b) a comparison sample made up of students not participating in a L/L program, but demographically similar to L/L participantsThe comparison sample was matched, as best as possible, to the L/L sample by gender, race/ethnicity, academic class level, and assigned residence hall.

After receiving approval from each institution, students were contacted in Spring, 2007 via email to complete the Web-based student survey. Students had approximately five weeks to respond to their survey invitation, and students who did not respond or who had incomplete surveys received up to three reminder emails asking them to complete the survey. Schools were encouraged to offer an incentive (e.g., bookstore or local business gift certificates) to encourage participation.

Sample Sample Size Total Response Response Rate
Living-Learning Sample 48,938 11,606 23.7%
Comparison Sample 61,744 10,913 17.7%
Total 110,682 22,519 20.3%

After receiving approval from each institution, students were contacted in Spring, 2007 via email to complete the Web-based student survey. Students had approximately five weeks to respond to their survey invitation, and students who did not respond or who had incomplete surveys received up to three reminder emails asking them to complete the survey. Schools were encouraged to offer an incentive (e.g., bookstore or local business gift certificates) to encourage participation.

Data in the 2007 NSLLP baseline survey were weighted to ensure that the characteristics of respondents match the characteristics of the original sample provided to us by the participating institutions. This helps ensure that accurate generalizations can be made about the conclusions reached in this study. Institutions’ data were weighted by one or several of the following student characteristics: gender, race/ethnicity, and class standing.

The Women in Our Study

Most of the data on this site is based on women from four groups:

  1. Women participants in women-only STEM L/L programs,
  2. Women participants in co-educational STEM L/L programs,
  3. Women participants in any other type (“non-STEM”) of L/L program, and
  4. Women living in a traditional residence hall (i.e., not in a L/L program).

There were a total of 14 women-only STEM L/L programs in our study and 78 co-educational STEM L/L programs. All other women in our study were either in traditional residence halls, or in one of the almost 500 other L/L programs in the study that did not have a STEM focus.

Demographic Characteristics of the Women in our Study

Several demographic differences among the women in STEM across the four types of L/L configurations are important to note (see Table). Women of color were slightly over-represented in the Women-only STEM L/L program category. A slightly higher percentage of women in either the Women-only STEM L/L or non-STEM L/L programs had mothers with higher levels of educational attainment. Interestingly, though, there was not a significant difference among father’s educational attainment for the women in STEM across the four categories. Finally, Women-only STEM L/L participants had slightly higher parental incomes as well.

In terms of high school achievement, non-STEM L/L female participants were the most likely to have obtained A or A+ averages in high school. (This may be related to a high proportion of women in this category participating in Honors L/L programs.) However, there were no women in Women-only STEM L/L programs who had high school grades lower than a B average. Similarly, SAT scores were the highest among the women participating in the non-STEM L/L programs and the Women-only STEM L/L programs. Finally, although the entire sample was predominantly composed of first-year students and sophomores, the traditional residence hall (i.e., non-L/L) sample was the most likely to have juniors and seniors in their grouping.

When comparing descriptive differences among the groups, it is important to keep these variations in the sample in mind. In order to account for individual differences in the multivariate analyses, race/ethnicity, parents’ education, parents’ income, high school grades, SAT score, and academic class standing will be accounted for in the statistical models.

Demographics of Women in STEM by L/L Type in the 2007 NSLLP (In Percentages)

Women Only STEM L/L
Not in L/L
(n=3, 326)

Race/Ethnicity χ2=47.2; df=15; p<.001

Black/African American 7.1 6.6 7.0 10.8
Asian American 11.0 6.9 10.0 8.1
Native American 1.6 0.4 0.5 0.5
Hispanic/Latino 5.5 4.0 4.3 5.1
White/Caucasian 72.0 80.7 76.6 74.0
Other 2.7 1.5 1.5 1.5

Mother's Education χ2=34.7; df=9; p<.001

High School or Less 16.4 20.9 16.6 18.9
Associates or Some College 16.4 20.3 21.1 23.5
Bachelors Degree 30.5 31.2 27.7 29.9
Graduate Degree 36.7 27.6 34.6 28.3

Father's Education χ2=16.3; df=9; NS

High School or Less 14.0 16.5 14.6 17.4
Associates or Some College 25.3 29.6 27.4 28.3
Bachelors Degree 37.6 33.3 32.7 32.3
Graduate Degree 23.0 20.6 25.2 22.1

Parents' Income χ2=25.3; df=9; p<.001

Less than $50K 13.2 16.0 18.3 21.7
$50–$99K 41.9 39.9 37.6 35.3
$100–$149K 23.4 27.5 26.3 24.4
$150K or More 21.6 16.6 17.7 18.6

High School Grades χ2=72.2; df=12; p<.001

A+ or A 51.1 50.2 56.5 46.2
A- or B+ 44.0 38.5 32.8 39.3
B 4.9 9.1 8.0 11.1
B- or C+ 0.0 1.8 0.4 0.3
C or Lower 0.0 0.4 0.4 0.3

SAT Score χ2=2.4E2; df=9; p<.001

1100 or Lower 8.6 23.2 13.6 24.4
1110 –1220 27.9 38.0 24.0 32.8
1230–1300 25.0 20.0 20.1 19.0
1310 or Higher 38.6 18.8 42.3 23.9

Academic Class Standing χ2=98.3; df=9; p<.001

Freshman 75.8 74.8 67.6 58.6
Sophomore 20.9 16.5 20.9 26.6
Junior 2.7 6.6 8.1 10.0
Senior 0.5 2.2 3.3 4.8

Details about the Development of the Survey

The original baseline questionnaire was created by the NSLLP staff through two years of review and pilot testing. The original questionnaire was pilot tested at four universities in the spring of 2003. Based upon those survey results, several tests were conducted to assess the reliability and validity of the items on the pilot questionnaire (Inkelas, Vogt, Longerbeam, Owen, & Johnson, 2006). Reliability was tested primarily through the internal consistency of scales designed to measure several of the constructs. Composite measures representing the major constructs were developed in 2003 using exploratory factor analysis and Cronbach alpha reliability testing. Additionally, the consistency of the scales across the campuses was tested using data from each individual institution in the pilot study. Cronbach alpha reliabilities of the scales for the 2003 pilot test ranged from .623 to .898. Reliability of the scales was re-tested with the 2004 NSLLP data, and Cronbach alpha scores ranged from .624 to .918. Two kinds of validity of the NSLLP instrument items were evaluated: content validity and construct validity. In order to establish the content validity of the items, prior to the 2003 pilot test administration, approximately 15 L/L program administrators reviewed the questionnaire. In addition, as mentioned previously, the survey was pilot tested at four campuses in the spring of 2003 and a previous version of the survey was administered on one campus in the spring of 2002. After each new administration, the content of the questions was revised for clarity.

Construct validity was evaluated by investigating expected similarities within—and dissimilarities across—themes. Construct validity was also determined by studying group differences. The differences between L/L and comparison sample students, and the differences among demographic groups, matched higher education theory and the results from prior research. For more information about the reliability and validity of the constructs on the 2004 NSLLP survey, see Inkelas et al. (2006).

Several changes were made to the 2007 NSLLP survey instrument. Questions related to choice of major and patterns of enrollment were added to the instrument, as well as items related to the pre-college and college experiences of women in STEM majors, such as significant mentors, professional development, academic expectations, and confidence in STEM activities. Composite scales were reconfigured to create a more parsimonious survey instrument, and re-tested for internal consistency with the 2007 data. Cronbach alpha scores of the composite measures from the 2007 baseline survey ranged from .652 to .961. Cronbach alpha scores for the 2007 longitudinal follow-up survey ranged from .606 to .945.

How We Analyzed the Data

Most of the survey questions were combined to form composite scales based upon the factor analysis and reliability testing described in the instrumentation portion of this chapter. Composite scales were used instead of individual survey items because they provided more rigorous reliability and validity than single items and because, often, the individual items were designed to be developed into composite measures. Composite scales were analyzed using one-way ANOVAs, and categorical measures were analyzed using chi-square. Findings representing various predictors of student outcomes were conducted using hierarchical ordinary least squares regression analysis, with variables entered in blocks. For the regression analyses, the independent variables were entered in the following fashion:

Block one (Student background characteristics):

  • Race/ethnicity
  • Mother’s educational attainment
  • Father’s educational attainment
  • Parents’ income
  • High school grades
  • SAT score

Block two (Academic class level)

Block three (L/L program type)

  • In Women-only STEM L/L program
  • In Co-ed STEM L/L program
  • In Non-STEM L/L program
  • Referent: in traditional residence hall environment

Block four (L/L environments):

  • Use of residence hall resources
  • Studied in groups
  • Academic conversations with peers
  • Social conversations with peers
  • Course-related faculty interaction
  • Mentoring relationships with faculty
  • Perception that residence hall climate is academically supportive
  • Perception that residence hall climate is socially supportive

Block five (STEM environments):

  • Received academic advising in hall
  • Attended lectures/seminars in hall
  • Attended career workshops
  • Performed community service
  • Participated in internship
  • Attended presentation given by industry professional in field
  • Visited work setting of industry related to field
  • Worked with high school students in outreach activity

Results from the National Study

How we Report the Results

For all of the next few bar graphs, we break out the results by four L/L groupings:

Tests of differences for women in STEM broken out into the four L/L groupings show that student outcomes do vary by L/L program type. However, those differences may not be as one might expect. The figures below show the results of the tests of mean differences using ANOVA and categorical differences using chi-square. Click on the links below to skip to certain findings, or scroll through to peruse all of the findings.

  1. Results: Perceptions of Ease with the Transition to College
  2. Results: Overall Sense of Belonging to the Institution
  3. Results: Perceptions of Critical Thinking & Analysis Skills
  4. Results: Perceptions of Chances of Success in College and Professionally
  5. Results: Estimated Likelihood of Completing a STEM degree
  6. Results: Estimated Likelihood of Getting a Good Job in a STEM Field
  7. Results: Estimated Likelihood of Attending Graduate School in a STEM Field
  8. Results: L/L Practices that Lead to Successful Student Outcomes

Results: Perceptions of Ease with the Transition to College

Overall, women in STEM perceived an easier social transition to college than an academic transition. Moreover, women participating in women in STEM L/L programs perceived the smoothest social transition. However, women in co-educational STEM L/L programs perceived the smoothest academic transition.

academic-social-transition image

Perceptions of ease with the transition to college

Results: Overall Sense of Belonging to the Institution

Most women in STEM feel a strong sense of belonging to their institution (i.e., they feel integrated with their campus). Additionally, ANOVA tests show that women in women in STEM L/L programs, as well as co-ed STEM L/L programs are more likely to perceive a sense of belonging than women in non-STEM L/L programs or no L/L program at all.

sense of belonging to institution image

Overall sense of belonging to institution

Perceptions of Critical Thinking & Analysis Skills

The bar chart below represents women in STEM majors’ beliefs about their critical thinking and analysis abilities. This composite measure pertains to students’ perceptions that they prefer to explore the meaning behind information and challenge assertions, instead of merely accepting knowledge as absolute. Generally speaking, there are only marginal differences among women in STEM across the various types of L/L programs. However, there are significant differences among the four types of programs, with women in non-STEM L/L programs recording the highest mean scores for this intellectual outcome.

critical thinking and analysis image

Perceptions of critical thinking and analysis abilities

Perceptions of Chances of Success in College & Professionally

Women in STEM perceive a very high likelihood of success, both in college and in a future profession. However, ANOVA analyses and subsequent post-hoc tests indicated that women in STEM who participated in a co-ed STEM L/L program were more likely to estimate a high likelihood of doing well in college than women in all other categories. Meanwhile, women in non-STEM L/L programs were more likely to indicate a high likelihood of success professionally.

chances of success in college and professionally image

Estimation of chances of success in college and professionally

Estimated Likelihood of Completing a STEM degree

The bar chart below shows the distribution of responses for the likelihood of a woman in STEM major to state that she believes she will complete a bachelor’s degree in a STEM major. Chi-square probability tests show that there is no significant difference in women’s estimations of their degree completion by type of program. Indeed, almost all women in any type of residential arrangement feel either “likely” or “very likely” that they will graduate with a STEM degree.

completing a degree in STEM major image

Estimated likelihood of completing a degree in STEM major

Results: Estimated Likelihood of Getting a Good Job in a STEM Field

Women in STEM majors across the four types of L/L programs had roughly the same estimations that they would be able to obtain a good job in a STEM field after graduating from college (see Figure 6). Women in women-only STEM L/L programs and co-ed STEM L/L programs were slightly more likely to believe they had a “very good chance” of finding a good job in STEM.

getting a good job in a STEM field after graduation image

Estimated likelihood of getting a good job in a STEM field after graduation

Note: χ2=29.0; df=9; p<.001

Results: Estimated Likelihood of Attending Graduate School in a STEM Field

Most women in STEM felt that their chances of going on to graduate school in a STEM field were good (see Figure 7). Interestingly, though, women in non-STEM L/L programs (e.g., Honors, First Year Experience) were more likely than women in STEM in any other L/L program to indicate they had a “very good chance” of going on to graduate school in a STEM field.

likelihood of going onto graduate school in a STEM field image

Estimated likelihood of going onto graduate school in a STEM field

Results: L/L Practices that Lead to Successful Student Outcomes

While it may be interesting to learn which types of L/L programs seem to facilitate stronger or weaker outcomes, what may be more important for the improvement of practice is learning which types of programs and services are related to which outcomes. We conducted nine different multiple regression analyses. Click on the link for Block 4 or Block 5 if you wish to see the full table of results. Here is what we found:

What L/L Practices are Related to Students’ Smooth Academic Transition to College?:
  • Studying with peers
  • Having conversations with peers about academic subjects
  • Perceiving the residence hall climate as academically and socially supportive
  • Attending seminars and lectures about STEM issues in the residence hall
What L/L Practices are Related to Students’ Smooth Social Transition to College?:
  • Studying with peers
  • Having conversations with peers about academic subjects
  • Perceiving the residence hall climate as academically and socially supportive
  • Doing outreach in local high schools on STEM topics
What L/L Practices are Related to Students’ Sense of Belonging to their University?:
  • Having conversations with peers about academic subjects
  • Perceiving the residence hall climate as academically and socially supportive
  • Attending seminars and lectures about STEM issues in the residence hall
  • Doing outreach in local high schools on STEM topics
What L/L Practices are Related to Students’ Critical Thinking & Analysis Abilities?:
  • Having conversations with peers about academic subjects
  • Attending seminars and lectures about STEM issues in the residence hall
What L/L Practices are Related to Students’ Academic Self-Confidence?:
  • Having conversations with peers about academic subjects
  • Interacting with professors on course-related matters
  • Perceiving the residence hall climate as academically and socially supportive
What L/L Practices are Related to Students’ Professional Self-Confidence?:
  • Having conversations with peers about academic subjects
  • Interacting with professors on course-related matters
  • Perceiving the residence hall climate as academically and socially supportive
  • Visiting a STEM work setting
  • Doing outreach in local high schools on STEM topics
What L/L Practices are Related to Students’ Beliefs that they will Complete a STEM Degree, Attend Graduate School in a STEM major, or Obtain a Good Job in a STEM field:
  • Interacting with professors on course-related matters
  • Visiting a STEM work setting
  • Having conversations with peers about academic subjects (obtain a good job only)

Results from a Four-Campus Case Study

What We Studied

The NSLLP also conducted a case study of four institutions in Spring 2008 to examine more closely the elements of effective living-learning programs, particularly those who cater directly to women in STEM majors. The following research questions guided this study:

  1. What are the empirically-based best practices for developing, implementing, and assessing L/L programs?
  2. How do students, staff, faculty, administrators, and other stakeholders articulate these best practices?
  3. What conceptual model best illustrates these best practices?

Results from a Four-Campus Case StudyThe Sites for the Case Studies

Because we wished to study exemplary L/L programs, we used the 2004 and 2007 NSLLP survey data to help us identify which programs included students with the strongest average outcomes on a number of factors, including the transition to college, cognitive development, and sense of belonging. In addition, because the NSLLP consisted of over 600 different L/L programs encompassing 41 different themes, we felt it important to compare L/L programs of similar themes (i.e., comparing apples to apples) across the four campuses in our case study. One theme in particular that we chose to investigate was programming serving women in STEM fields.

Results from a Four-Campus Case StudyThe Sites for the Case Studies

Based on the above criteria, we selected four campuses for the case study:

  1. Mid-Atlantic University is a mid-sized public research university near a city center in the Mid-Atlantic with a substantial minority student enrollment, 17 percent of which is African American. A residential campus, Mid-Atlantic has a substantial Housing division, but there is a fluid movement on- and off-campus by its students. Mid-Atlantic University hosts eight L/L programs on its campus, including a women-only STEM-based L/L program.
  2. Midwestern University is a mid-sized public residential university in a small town in the Midwest known for its curricular innovation. Midwestern University offers 15 L/L programs, including a women-only STEM-based L/L program.
  3. Southern Mid-City University is a large public university in the Southeast in a mid-sized city. Its Housing division is quite large, and includes 13 L/L programs, one of which was a women-only STEM-based L/L program.
  4. Southern Rural University is a mid-sized public university in a rural setting in the Southeast, but not in the same state as Southern Mid-City. Southern Rural University also hosted 13 L/L programs (again, including a women-only STEM-based L/L program).

All site visits occurred in the spring of 2008, and each site visit lasted two or three days each, with three NSLLP researchers conducting each site visit.

Results from a Four-Campus Case StudyHow we Collected and Analyzed the Case Study Data

Prior to each site visit, respective institutional and LLP websites were thoroughly consulted. A gatekeeper was identified at each site, typically a senior Housing/Residence Life . This gatekeeper obtained various documents we requested, and arranged our site visit schedule. All interviews and focus groups were audio recorded and transcribed; in addition, all NSLLP researchers at the sites took fieldnotes.

Analysis of the data followed Stake’s multiple case study procedures. Data from the individual sites were coded separately first, with NSLLP researchers meeting weekly to compare and collapse codes as well as discuss emergent findings. Then, individual case study reports were written for each site. Then, to conduct the cross-case analysis, the sub-groups shifted from a school, or case, perspective to one that focused on particular themes. Examining these themes as a set, a cross-case analysis was performed and written.

Results from a Four-Campus Case StudyHow we Collected and Analyzed the Case Study Data

Several procedures were implemented to develop trustworthiness of the analytical procedures. First, both the individual school reports and cross-case reports were edited by NSLLP research team members who were different from the authors and who did not have an intimate familiarity with the site. Second, when possible, evidence was triangulated among the interview, focus group, observation, and documentation data. Finally, the gatekeeper at each institution was sent a copy of the individual school reports and asked to provide feedback as a form of member checking.

Themes from the Multiple Case Study

We identified 14 themes that emerged from the case study data. (Click on the links below to skip to certain descriptions of the themes, or scroll through to peruse all of the themes)

  1. Academic Affairs – Student Affairs Partnerships
  2. Champions
  3. Resources
  4. Structure
  5. Faculty Involvement & Faculty-Peer Interaction
  6. Common Interests
  7. Learning Outcomes & Assessment
  8. Academic Support, Social Support & Peer Interaction
  9. Curricular Programming
  10. Co-Curricular Programming
  11. Living-Learning Fads
  12. Parallel Partnerships
  13. Hyperbonding
  14. Resident & Peer Advisors

Academic Affairs – Student Affairs Partnerships

We initially theorized that effective living-learning programs would be supported by a formal, institutionalized partnership between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. Overall, creating and maintaining partnerships remained a challenge across all the institutions. Each institution approached partnerships between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs in a unique way that reflected the larger institutional culture and context. We expand upon this theoretical proposition in greater detail in a subsequent section, under “Parallel Partnerships.”


We theorized that effective L/L programs would have champions and allies at multiple levels, including among students, faculty, and administrators. While champions were identifiable at all four institutions, there was considerable variation in the roles played by these individuals and in their relevance at the institution-wide and program-specific levels. At three of the four institutions studied, high-level administrators were specifically mentioned as influential allies for their L/L programs. Faculty members were also mentioned as champions, particularly of individual L/L programs at Mid-Atlantic University, Midwestern University, and Southern Mid-City University. The other group most frequently identified as champions of L/L programs were, unsurprisingly, staff in residence life and housing and program-specific staff. Few areas of distinction were noted among the institutions. The most apparent was that although we had theorized that champions would include individuals from multiple levels, students were not often identified as champions.


Resources for L/L programs were examined across three domains: financial, space, and staff. Financial support was the most salient and discussed resource among all constituents. Most comments related to financial support were framed around specific living-learning programs, rather than the entire entity of programs at a school. Whereas some programs had robust financial resources, other programs were scarcely funded. In addition to discussing the volume of funding, sources of financial support were also highlighted; while most L/L programs garnered funding from Housing or Residence Life Programs, they were differentially funded by academic sources, which tended to lead to the disparity in total budgets. Space allocation (e.g., rooms large enough for social gatherings, availability of computer labs) was more salient for students rather than staff, although both mentioned the importance of space distribution. Personnel resources were not readily discussed, although a few comments were made regarding specific programs.


Although we understood that L/L program structures would vary widely when we developed theoretical propositions, we theorized that effective L/L programs would purposefully train, designate responsibilities, and maintain routine communication with living-learning stakeholders. Areas of responsibility within L/L programs were discussed from a variety of lenses. Most responses focused on delineation of roles among paraprofessionals (i.e., student staff such as RAs). Many programs ran with relatively small staffs, and the uneven balance between numerous responsibilities and few personnel may have fostered an unhealthy working environment for some living-learning staff. Discussion of effective communication included dialogue across Student and Academic Affairs stakeholders, as well as across staff levels (e.g., from L/L program directors to hall directors to RAs). Although not highly discussed, several comments were made in regard to staff training for L/L programs. All responses related to training overwhelmingly emphasized the insufficiency of training for staff. Although residence life staff received training for residential living in general, no schools or programs discussed specific training for L/L program staff. Similarly, faculty reported hardly any training at all for their L/L program roles.

Faculty involvement and faculty-peer interaction

From their inceptions, L/L programs on the campuses within our study have relied on faculty to champion their creation, design program experiences, and advocate for their continued existence. A commonality among the institutions was the involvement of faculty in the L/L programs’ administrative components: faculty maintained formalized, positional roles by serving as L/L program directors. Faculty also tended to be involved with L/L programs administratively through advisory councils or boards. Not surprisingly, a prevalent form of faculty involvement within L/L programs included teaching courses. Another common theme among the institutions was the diversity of involvement among faculty within the co-curricular aspects of the L/L programs. Although faculty members’ motivations for becoming involved with L/L programs on the four campuses were not explicitly explored, it was evident that some faculty possessed great enthusiasm for their involvement.

Across all the cases, the interactions between students and faculty primarily occurred within the academic context of the L/L program, such as classes and other programmatic elements of the program that were sponsored by the academic college or department. While some individual faculty took on greater mentoring roles outside the confines of the official living-learning programming, the great majority of the student-faculty interaction did not occur in informal or co-curricular contexts.

Common interests

We theorized that L/L program students should share common interests, and in general, students' motivations to join L/L programs included: a desire to be with likeminded peers who share their academic interests, a wish for social acceptance, and a hope to ease the transition to college by joining a community that makes a large university feel more intimate. Often, these motivations worked in tandem as well: the shared academic interests of students led to feelings of safety and social acceptance among like-minded peers.

Learning outcomes and assessment

Most schools had begun discussing learning outcomes and assessment as an important venture, but at the time of the site visit, very little action had occurred. Many personnel affirmed the need and importance of learning outcomes, but few explicit learning outcomes were clearly articulated. Within one school, other measures (i.e., graduation rates, obtaining Honors certificates) were incorrectly labeled as learning outcomes, thus we inferred that they may have been unfamiliar with defining and assessing learning outcomes for L/L programs. Due to our decision to focus on programs emphasizing civic engagement and international/cultural experiences, among others, it is no surprise that numerous L/L programs in our study informally articulated the importance of fostering cultural competence, the appreciation of cultural diversity, and increased engagement with one’s community as learning outcomes for their students. However, as was previously noted, most programs had not established formal mechanisms to observe or measure these outcomes.

Academic support, social support, and peer interaction

Regardless of whether a L/L program was focused on a particular academic or curricular theme, the general sentiment was that students benefited academically from involvement in the community. The proximity of peers who were studying similar fields, enrolled in the same courses, or interested in related topics and issues helped to provide students with an abundance of physical and human resources. From an ease in forming study groups to an open ear after a difficult test or project, having neighbors and hall mates who were engaged in similar studies helped students to overcome academic challenges which might have otherwise been overly daunting or difficult.

In addition to the extensive academic support that students received as a result of their involvement in L/L programs, they also enjoyed varying degrees of social support within the community. Students reported a high level of companionship and camaraderie with their fellow residents due to similar curricular and co-curricular interests. The friendships and bonds that were formed as a result of involvement in L/L programs were of extreme importance and significance to these students throughout their college experience. Students reported feelings of acceptance, approval, and understanding from fellow residents and in some cases expressed that their halls were the only places on campus where they felt comfortable being themselves.

Curricular programming

While some universities placed a larger emphasis on the integration of a curricular component into L/L programs at the meta-level, other institutions left decisions on the incorporation of curricular programming up to specific programs. Among those institutions that placed a strong emphasis on the inclusion of curricular programming into their L/L programs, the diversity and array of opportunities ran the gamut from highly involved to more passive programming.

In determining the structure and level of curricular programming that accompany the L/L program experience, administrators considered the existing course load and other academic demands placed on the students enrolled in the program. However, in those programs where enrollment in the curricular offerings was optional, administrators found it difficult to maintain a level of consistency or cohesion in their courses from year-to-year. These inconsistencies had a seemingly negative effect on the perceived quality of the programming options.

Co-curricular programming

Whereas co-curricular programming in many L/L programs focused around academic or curricular-based themes, programs in other communities showed that residents preferred a more informal, social program structure. A common component of co-curricular programming was that it was almost entirely student-run and developed within the communities. The presence of these self-initiated events helped to ensure that the co-curricular programming met the needs of the specific residential populations. By providing students with this sense of initiative and ownership over their co-curricular programming, the programs became both more organic and more rewarding for the students who were planning and participating in them. As was the case with the curricular programming in these L/L programs, the variety and diversity of co-curricular programming ran the gamut from solely academic to purely social.

Living-learning fads

One finding that emerged from Southern Rural University’s case that reflected a unique attitude toward L/L programs by a senior administrator. This high-level Student Affairs administrator noted that the themes around which L/L programs were created often reflected fads of the times; this individual suggested that as new fads arose, new L/L programs should be created to supplant those programs whose themes were no longer in fashion. This administrator indicated an openness to hear and cultivate new and fresh ideas from faculty and others, accompanied by a willingness to re-evaluate and eliminate older programs for the sake of keeping the L/L programs vital as a whole.

Parallel partnerships

While effective L/L programs do exercise some form of an Academic and Student Affairs partnership, the form of that partnership can vary significantly. Some, like Southern Rural University, had very well integrated and coordinated efforts. Others, most notably Mid-Atlantic University, operated with what we have characterized as a “parallel partnership,” in which the Academic and Student Affairs units divided their labor based on their level of expertise. Parallel partnerships allowed each unit to “do what it does best,” often translating to community building, discipline, and hall programming being handled by Housing, and courses, faculty involvement, and academic programming being handled by the Academic department in the partnership. Regarding Southern Mid-City University’s partnership between Academic and Student Affairs, one staff member discussed that L/L programs operate with, “University Housing providing the residence halls, Residence Life staff, and administrative support, while one or more faculty members direct each Living-Learning Community and design its curriculum.”

The parallel partnership appeared to be equally as effective as the integrated partnership, assuming regular communication between both units. As a senior residential life administrator at Mid-Atlantic University said,

The best thing we can do for these living-learning communities is to first of all provide really good communities, and that’s what we’re good at, that’s what we excel at, that’s what we’re supposedly experts in, so let’s spend our energies there and let the academic folks design the academic … learning part of it.

A senior Academic Affairs officer at Southern Mid-City University offered this perspective on parallel partnership:

Academic Affairs and Student Affairs certainly are still somewhat separated, but we know that ultimately the program can’t work without the collaboration of the two.

At their best, the parallel partnerships reflected mutual respect and trust and offered efficiency and flexibility so that each partner could enhance their own areas of responsibility. When not at their best, however, parallel partnerships permitted mistrust and lack of communication to detract from the effectiveness of the L/L programs’ development and operations.

There were some areas of distinctiveness within these broad themes. For instance, we found that at Southern Rural University, much of the energy and initiative for building and maintaining strong collaborative ties were provided by housing administrators, in particular senior leaders. At Southern Mid-City University, where we found parallel partnerships, we found that the academic program provided both the curricular and co-curricular content of the L/L programs.

One initiative found on three of the four campuses that facilitated greater collaboration across units and promoted open communication was the advisory council. At Southern Rural University, Mid-Atlantic University, and Midwestern University, these councils typically included representatives from Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, academic programs, L/L program staff, and students. These councils also encouraged collaboration among L/L programs. Overall, these councils allowed trust to develop and the broader L/L programs to flourish.


As discussed in Academic Support, Social Support, and Peer Interaction, we found that L/L program participants developed strong peer communities that may have been initially built upon similar academic interests, but typically blossomed into robust social networks or even oases of social acceptance. However, in some L/L programs, the student participants demonstrated an over-exaggerated sense of social connection. In these L/L programs, the participants were so satisfied with their L/L program peer groups that they began to isolate themselves from the rest of the broader campus. Thus, one potentially disadvantageous side effect of the heightened peer effect that we found is something that we termed “hyperbonding.” While this increased level of interaction was not always negative, its presence exemplifies a potentially challenging social consequence of living-learning participation. For example, in L/L programs at all four institutions, students expressed concerns that they might not be able to successfully make friends on campus outside of their L/L program. Similarly, many staff noticed that some communities became insular to the point where students were uncomfortable interacting with peers from other programs or communities. A student at Mid-Atlantic University described this connection in saying that “it’s such a close community that you’re so much in your comfort zone, that you don’t want to take a risk of like going out and meeting new people.”

In some instances, this extraordinary social connection served to heighten friendships and create a community in which students were committed both to their fellow residents and to the community as a whole. This was most frequently observed in L/L programs focused on global cultures or international issues. In pairing international students with domestic students who expressed an interest in global cultures, these programs brought together residents who held a similar interest but may have had little else in common. In contrast, L/L programs that focused on a particular area of study or field of interest tended to attract a very homogeneous population of students.

As residents in the aforementioned international or cultural L/L programs brought a diverse array of backgrounds and interests to the community, hyperbonding in these settings was more constructive and took the form of dedicated and committed connections between residents. Students told stories of friendships that endured even after one or more of the residents had moved back to their native country. Throughout the interview process, many students commented on making friends “for life.” One student said, “Looking around at my closest group of friends here after only two semesters of school, I can tell that these meaningful friendships will last a lifetime.” Similarly, one RA spoke of a culture in which outgoing students would leave their linens and other necessities for the incoming group of international students. Moreover, many residents used these friendships and networks to branch out and make social connections with other like-minded individuals at the institution.

In contrast, the relative lack of diversity within other L/L programs, like women in STEM L/L programs, led residents to become more insular and self-confined to this smaller social circle. While this intense connection was a strong support system for students, it also resulted in negative consequences, such as disruptiveness in classes and acting out within the residential community. This was of particular concern within L/L programs in which participants were required to take the same academic courses as their fellow residents. As a result, the intense social bonds between neighbors and peers carried over into the academic setting, with little distinction between living quarters and classroom. One staff member noted that residents in these programs appeared to be more “chatty” and social both within the residence hall and within the academic classroom.

Another negative consequence of hyper-bonding was isolation, as students came to over-rely on support from their living-learning peers to the exclusion of others at the university. This relationship support dependence also manifest with L/L program staff, particularly among residential advisors (RAs). One RA commented that L/L program participants call upon their RAs more frequently than traditional residence hall students, noting that students often do not discuss issues or grievances with anyone outside of their immediate support circle. He said,

Last year when I was an RA in the regular housing, I left my number outside my door like, “If you need me, call me,” and they called me a couple of times when they actually needed me, and now I receive text messages at like 12:30 1:00 in the morning like, “Where are you? I need you to go talk to the neighbors,” and I’m like, “It’s 12:30. Go call the RA on duty,” but…I respond to it, but they just, it’s just a lot more. They just need me more.

Students expressed difficulty in forming relationships outside of the L/L program, as if they had become so comfortable in their immediate environment that they were afraid to branch out for fear of what they might find. As a result, it was difficult for residents to become fully immersed in the larger social community at the institution. This isolation proved to be particularly noticeable in L/L programs with a focus on women in STEM. Despite the benefits of single-sex women in STEM programs, the fact that most of these communities included only female students made the experience quite different from what the women were likely to encounter after college. Although this structure appeared to be the norm, some L/L programs intentionally included male students in the community both to create a more diverse social and residential environment, and to provide interested men with the opportunity to learn more about issues faced by women in STEM fields.

Sometimes, hyperbonding among residents resulted in disciplinary difficulties, when students disrespected the personal boundaries of individuals, spread rumors about others through an already tight-knit community, or participated in illicit activities. In addition to the over-reliance on living-learning peers for friendship, this hyperbonding was observed within the classroom as living-learning students were reported to be cliquish because of their out-of-classroom relationships, making non-L/L program student collaboration intimidating and sometimes disrupting the flow of classroom dynamics.

Resident and peer advisors

One potentially powerful source of peer interaction that remained largely untapped in more than one case involved the use of resident advisors (RAs) or peer advisors (PAs). For the most part, RA or PA roles within L/L programs were defined identically as RA or PA roles in any traditional residence hall context. Several stakeholders, including RAs or PAs themselves, noted that much more could have been done to integrate the in- and out-of-class connections of the L/L program by using the RA/PA as the conduit. One RA at Southern Mid-City University articulated her awareness of the difficulties of being in a specific L/L program. Regarding her role, she said, “I think sometimes keeping them positive about their classes [is harder]…[I] just remind them, ‘“Hey, this is a great opportunity for you. You gotta stick with it.’” Moreover, administrators and students at Mid-Atlantic, Midwestern, and Southern Rural Universities noted that community building and mentoring was vastly more effective when the RA or PA was a former participant in that L/L program.

Discussions regarding living-learning program structure revolved around several main issues. Many practitioners, especially paraprofessionals like the RAs and PAs, described their frustration with vague and ambiguous role definitions. For example, at Southern Rural University, the RAs and the PAs in the L/L programs were employed for different purposes. Although students had difficulty differentiating between the paraprofessional roles, they found all to be useful. Similarly, staff at Midwestern University defined the first year advisor role as complicated and overwhelming, albeit significant and crucial for the programs’ successes. Similarly, professional staff commented that the multiple responsibilities associated with their job were often difficult to juggle. Finally, it is important to note that RAs and PAs assigned to living-learning floors were often given no additional training about the unique qualities of L/L program students versus traditional residence hall residents. Rather than receiving formal training, one STEM L/L program RA viewed her meetings with program administrators as an informal orientation, saying:

I met with [program administrators] before the semester began to kind of go over the goals of the community and just kind of get to know them also, just to make sure that we’re all on the same page as far as goals and aspirations for the program, and it helped serve as kind of an orientation for me.

Lack of training might help to explain why the RAs and PAs deemed to be the most effective were often former participants in those L/L programs: these students already had a working knowledge of the respective living-learning programs. Asked if an academic background in a STEM field was a prerequisite for a STEM L/L program RA, the assistant first-year advisor of an L/L program at Midwestern University replied,

Typically that’s one criteria that we do look for, but it’s not required…An interest though is required, and so we do have a fourth-year RA who actually used to be in [the STEM L/L program] when she was a first-year student, but now has changed to business and will graduate with a business degree…so it’s more of an interest or a desire to be a part of the community that we kind of definitely look for, but then if they do have a science background, that’s just an added bonus.

However, we might infer that RAs or PAs without such previous experiences may be at a disadvantage when working with a L/L program population. Although RAs can demonstrate a commitment to program missions outside of their academic discipline, professional staff often sought to select RAs with similar degree programs.

Chapter 3 reviews relevant developmental theories with a specific focus on the areas of vocational, cognitive, moral, and identity development. These theories not only help explain the findings from the quantitative and qualitative portions of the NSLLP, but also assist L/L program professionals in creating effective L/L programming and environments that help women in STEM students succeed during their college careers and beyond.

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