TAMPA — Hoping to shed its image as a commuter school offering a drive-through education, the University of South Florida will dedicate a new $65 million dormitory on Friday.
With just over 1,000 beds, Juniper-Poplar Hall opens as USF for the first time begins requiring incoming freshmen to live on campus.
The university hopes to create better, more successful students — and improve its graduation rate.
Research shows that students who live on campus are more involved and graduate at higher rates, said Jennifer Capeheart-Meningall, USF's vice president for student affairs.
"When you live on campus … you build relationships, you form habits, you make connections in ways that you just cannot do when you're driving in every day," she said.
USF's six-year graduation rate — a common benchmark measured by universities — is 48 percent. That's lower than the University of Florida, Florida State, the University of Central Florida or the private University of Miami. Perhaps not coincidentally, each of those schools also has a higher percentage of on-campus or university-affiliated housing for students.
USF's new requirement to live on campus is aimed at first-year students. Generally, that means freshmen. (USF St. Petersburg, which opened a 351-student dorm in 2006, has a similar rule for first-year students.)
Ultimately, USF wants one-fourth of its full-time students to live on campus or in university-affiliated housing. The opening of the seven-story Juniper-Poplar Hall brings the number of beds on the Tampa campus to about 5,400.
But with 38,000 students, the campus needs about 10,000 beds to meet USF's goal.
So this academic year, administrators will begin talking to private apartment complexes near campus about becoming affiliated with the university.
Such arrangements are common, especially at urban institutions such as New York University, said Capeheart-Meningall. Affiliations elsewhere range from the informal to the involved, with entire apartment complexes designated for universities' use and run by university staff.
"We'll start next year trying to figure out what affiliated housing means," she said.
In the meantime, Juniper-Poplar Hall is designed to foster the growth of learning communities.
With 1,050 beds, it is about three times bigger than the Tampa campus' next-biggest residence hall. All the rooms are doubles and are grouped in pods. Thirty-five students live in each pod, with doors opening onto a common living room with armchairs and TVs. The dorm has its own dining hall, convenience store, carry-out barbecue joint, even a Starbucks.
Then there are the three classrooms. About 30 classes, many of them honors seminars for freshmen, are scheduled to be taught inside the dorm.
Juniper-Poplar Hall also will have its own resident faculty member, assistant professor of history Julie Langford.
Along with living on site, Langford will teach two classes — "The Roman Republic" and "Sex and the City" (the city being ancient Rome) — in the dorm's classrooms.
Langford expects to have lots of contact with students, chatting them up about campus activities beyond the party scene— music, movies, theater.
She also hopes to establish lecture and film series and organize academic support events, like a session on how to study for a mid-term exam.
Mostly, she hopes that students don't keep to themselves.
"In Rome, people lived their lives outdoors and were involved in their communities," she said. "I'm hoping that the communal areas will give students an opportunity to do that."
While first-year students are required to live on campus, those from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, who made up 42 percent of last year's freshman class, can get an exemption to live at home.
Still, "almost half of the students who have been admitted from those counties are choosing to live in the residence halls," said Dorie Paine, USF's director of housing and residential education.
Paine said she assumed that once living on campus was required, more from around Tampa Bay would want to live on campus, too, because "that's what you do when you go to USF. I think that's proving true."
The fact that most of the students in Juniper-Poplar Hall will be freshmen is a good thing, says senior and resident adviser Casey McDaniel.
"A lot of freshmen, that first year for them, if they have the right influences and the right resources, it can be great, and it can set them up for the three years that follow," she said.
McDaniel, who is studying biology and environmental science and policy, said she spent her first year of college living at home in St. Cloud and taking classes at Valencia Community College. Now she regrets it.
"It seemed like a wasted year living at home and just not doing anything," she said.
Richard Danielson can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5311.