College can be an exciting and formative time for students, and living on campus can be a wonderful part of that experience. Different housing options and the system schools use to assign housing can be confusing, but understanding them can be important to make sure students feel comfortable in the space they call home for a year. LGBTQIA+ students may face challenges with housing that their peers do not, so it is particularly important for them to understand how on-campus housing works so they are prepared for any issues that may arise. Housing options and rules vary a lot from school to school, but there are a few types of housing and policies many schools have.
How Does College Housing Usually Work?
The most common types of on-campus housing are dorm-style rooms, private rooms, and suites. Most schools primarily have dorm-style rooms, which are individual rooms shared by two to three roommates. Dorm-style rooms function like bedrooms and will share facilities like bathrooms, kitchens, and living areas with the other rooms on their hall or in their building. Many on-campus halls and buildings will have events for the students to get to know each other and make friends, and they can create a wonderful sense of community for students.
Private rooms are similar to dorm-style rooms but have just one student living in them instead of multiple roommates. They are often in halls or in buildings with dorm-style rooms and can be a great choice for students who feel more comfortable knowing they have a space to come home to where they can unwind from their day alone.
Suites function more like apartments. They are generally made up of two or more bedrooms (with either individual students or a few roommates in each) that share a kitchen, bathroom, and/or living space. Suites are often only available to students after their first year. If a school has suites, students can often apply together with the people they want as suitemates, which can be a great way to make sure that the people they are living with are people they know and trust. Having a suite can also mean a student has semi-private spaces besides just their room where they feel comfortable relaxing and being themselves. Most schools have far more dorm-style rooms than private rooms or suites, and because they offer more privacy they are often considered more desirable housing options than dorm-style rooms.
Regardless of the type of on-campus housing a student is in they will most likely have an RA or Resident Advisor. RAs are students who are trained by the school to act as mentors for their hall. RAs are usually upperclassmen or graduate students who have already been through a lot of the situations the students in their hall are dealing with, and they are available if a student needs someone to talk to about anything from issues with roommates to feeling stressed about their classes.
The housing options available and the amount of choice a student has in their housing are different for each school, and many schools have a separate system for picking housing for freshmen versus returning other students. This is both because freshmen are less likely to know other students at the school that they would want to be roommates with and because many schools want freshmen to be together in the same buildings or halls so they have the built-in support of being with people who are going through the same adjustments they are.
Incoming freshmen are often placed in dorm-style rooms with other incoming freshmen as roommates, and after the first year, most schools will have a system that allows students to pick roommates and have a say in what type of housing they are in. These systems sometimes use a random lottery and/or give priority based on what year the student is in to decide the order in which students get to choose their housing.
At most schools, both rooms and halls/buildings are divided based on gender, meaning students can only live with other students of the same gender as they are (based on the legal gender they have on file, not the gender they identify as). Many colleges also have gendered rules and policies for guests in on-campus rooms and living spaces. These rules may affect who is allowed to visit after a certain hour of the night, who can stay in a room as an overnight guest, or who is allowed into the room or hall. For example, women’s housing may not allow any men as guests after 8 pm. The main intent behind these rules is to restrict when students can have romantic or sexual partners over.
One of the main reasons schools will give for gender-divided housing is that students living in dorm-style or private rooms generally share a single bathroom with their full hall that has both stalls with toilets and showers. At some schools, these bathrooms are gender neutral and at others, they are restricted to the gender of the students who live there. Schools that have single-gender bathrooms often say dividing halls/buildings by gender is necessary because they only have one bathroom per hall, and schools with gender-neutral bathrooms often say that since the bathrooms are primarily used by the people living on the hall students will feel more comfortable using them (particularly the showers) if the hall/building is divided by gender. While that is true for some students, it can cause issues or create uncomfortable situations for others.
More colleges are starting to offer mixed gender or ‘gender inclusive’ housing as a standard option on their campuses, but most still do not and some schools that have gender-inclusive housing do not generally have it available to freshmen. Campus Pride, an organization that focuses on making college campuses safe and comfortable for LGBTQIA+ students, has a list of colleges that offer gender-inclusive housing as an option for students that currently includes 446 schools across the United States(1). While that may seem like a lot of schools, the total number of higher education institutions in the US is over 4,300, so the vast majority of schools still do not offer any gender-inclusive housing(2).
Potential Problems For LGBTQIA+ Students
Looking into a school’s policies for housing while applying is always a good idea, especially for LGBTQIA+ students. Being aware of how housing works at a school early on can help students understand what housing on-campus would be like, look into if living off-campus is an option, and be more informed when thinking about whether or not a school is truly a good fit. There may be some relevant information on a school’s website or in printed materials for applying, but to make sure to get full and up-to-date information it is best to contact the school’s Diversity or Campus Living offices. To find contact information for these offices, students can look on a school’s website or call their main number and ask for the easiest way to reach out to those offices. While knowing a school’s policies when applying may be ideal, there are still steps students can take if they run into challenges with housing after they have chosen or are attending a school.
Trans/Nonbinary Students Dealing With Gender-Divided Housing-
If a trans/nonbinary student who is starting college wants to live in gender-inclusive housing and knows the school they will be attending has it as an option, then it is best to contact the school before housing assignments are announced. Even if the school generally places all freshmen in gender-divided housing they may be willing to make exceptions for trans/nonbinary students. If a trans/nonbinary student has already been placed in divided gender housing but knows the school has gender-inclusive options, they can contact Campus Living to see if there are steps they can take to have their room assignment changed.
If a trans/nonbinary student realizes the college they will be attending does not offer any gender-inclusive housing, they may be able to be placed in a private room so they do not have to worry about potential issues or awkwardness with roommates (though that room may still be in a hall or building that is divided by gender). Alternatively, they may be able to get permission from the school to live off-campus even if the school generally does not allow it for freshmen or underclassmen. If a school refuses to accommodate a trans/nonbinary student for housing or if a student is dealing with harassment from other students or staff members because of the housing they are placed in, they may be able to seek legal action in states that include gender identity in nondiscrimination laws.
Gendered Rules For Guests In On-Campus Housing-
Gendered housing rules for guests can feel uncomfortable to LGBTQIA+ students both because trans/nonbinary students may be unsure what gendered rules apply to them, and students who are not straight may feel uncomfortable that these rules don’t take same-gender partners into consideration. For some LGBTQIA+ students, this may not feel particularly important, but to others, it can feel othering or uncomfortable. If LGBTQIA+ students have questions about if a school has gendered housing rules or how those rules may affect them or their partners, they can reach out to the school’s Diversity/Campus Living offices or talk to their RA.
At times gendered rules for guests can cause tension or conflicts if a student feels it is unfair that the rules affect them/their partners differently than their LGBTQIA+ roommates or hallmates. Some tension may be mild and dissipate on its own or be able to be resolved by having an RA mediate a discussion between the students. For more serious or ongoing conflicts, it is best to get the school’s Diversity/Campus Living teams involved. Solving these issues may include room changes and/or disciplinary action (or the threat of disciplinary action) against the student causing the problem. At times students may feel complicated about bringing issues like these to the attention of the school, but it is important to remember that all students should be able to feel comfortable in school housing, and if a student is creating an environment where that is not the case then they should be held accountable for their actions.
College housing can seem overwhelming and complicated, but once students figure it out and get comfortable it can be a fantastic experience. All students should be able to feel safe and welcome in on-campus housing, and even though LGBTQIA+ students may face challenges their peers don’t, by being proactive and prepared they can still have a wonderful time living on campus.
LGBTQIA+ students and their families don’t have to face these obstacles alone, so for more detailed information or guidance about housing please reach out to me by calling 860-857-0038 or sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 “Colleges and Universities That Provide Gender-Inclusive Housing.” Campus Pride, 7 Feb. 2023, https://www.campuspride.org/tpc/gender-inclusive-housing/.
2 “75 U.S. College Statistics: 2023 Facts, Data & Trends.” Research.com, 20 Dec. 2022, https://research.com/universities-colleges/college-statistics.