The Business Dorm

In themed residential colleges, students are eating, drinking, living, and breathing business.
The Business Dorm

Part of any student’s learning experience happens outside the classroom, in libraries, study groups, and dorm rooms. But what if a school could participate in those off-site learning experiences, reaching students where they live, so to speak? How much would that enhance a student’s overall education?

We’ll soon find out. A handful of business schools have organized themed residential colleges that cater to students interested in business or entrepreneurship. Dormmates take classes together and participate in extracurricular activities together, have access to lectures and specialized resources, and get a chance to rub elbows with professors and professionals who either live in the college with them or who drop by for extended visits.

Residential colleges are a long-standing tradition at schools like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale—and they’re catching on at schools around the world. “What residential colleges provide for students and faculty are the advantages of a small college environment in the context of a large university,” says Robert J. O’Hara, a biologist at Middlebury College in Vermont. He’s also author and administrator of The Collegiate Way Web site, which both extols the benefits of residential colleges and tells administrators how to establish them.

He continues, “Big state universities have wonderful resources, libraries, and research opportunities; but at an institution of 20,000 or 30,000, an undergraduate can feel lost in a crowd. As a consequence, many people choose small liberal arts colleges. Those are wonderful in terms of getting to know the faculty on a one-to-one basis and having a tight-knit community, but students lose the advantages of a big university. Residential colleges provide the best of both worlds.”

Variation on a Theme

Most residential colleges are cross-sectional living spaces that bring together students from all majors into the microcosm of a dorm. Themed residential colleges take an entirely different approach, giving students every opportunity to immerse themselves in their majors—with the goal of making students even more committed to their chosen profession.

Themed residential colleges also appear to be a relatively new concept, at least for business schools. Last fall, Oregon State University in Corvallis rolled out the Austin Entrepreneurship Program @ Weatherford Hall, a joint project among the College of Business, the College of Engineering, and University Housing & Dining. Situated in a remodeled historic building, the program can accommodate up to 290 students, as well as a resident entrepreneurship professor and visiting professors. It also has space for class rooms, conference rooms, an extensive entrepreneurship library, ten incubator rooms, and a machine shop—in short, everything a young entrepreneur might need to bring his innovation from idea to reality.

“Students who live together, study together, go to class together, and pursue common goals together do better.”
—J.D. Mackin, Central Michigan University

AEP @ Weatherford, as the program is called, was conceived partly as a way for the College of Business to add value to a very tech-oriented campus with a strong engineering program. The focus on entrepreneurship was a natural one, since the majority of Oregon businesses are small- and medium sized enterprises. “We wanted to fill the gap between discovery and market in a way that enriches education and scholarship while spawning economic development for the region,” says Ilene Kleinsorge, Sara Hart Kimball Dean at Oregon State’s College of Business.

Also opening last fall was The COBE Community, a residential college at the College of Business and Economics at Boise State in Idaho. “Boise State is an urban institution, and most students live off-campus,” says Rob Anson, professor of computer information systems and faculty in residence for The COBE Community. “We’re trying to create a greater presence for students in residence and build a community any way we can.”

Fortuitously, the university was just finishing up a residence hall and apartment-building campaign that allowed the business school to configure some of the new space to suit its needs. The residential college, which can accommodate 32 students, is located on the fourth floor of Keiser Hall, a new four-year dorm.

At Central Michigan University’s College of Business Administration in Mount Pleasant, the Business Residential College celebrated the start of its second year by expanding from two floors to four floors in CareyHall, an existing dorm. The program started with 40 students; last fall, 60 enrolled. The BRC is currently a two-year program aimed at freshmen and sophomores who have indicated an interest in business, and its goal is to reinforce that interest so the students go on to degrees and careers in business.

“Students who live together, study together, go to class together, and pursue common goals together do better,” says J.D.Mackin, director of the BRC. “During our first semester, the average GPA of our students exceeded that of the general student population of the university.”

Work and Play

For students, the advantages of a residential college are part academic and part social. For instance, at Central Michigan’s BRC, freshmen can take two required classes right at the dorm—a life skills course and a business course for freshmen. In addition, when those students take other classes on campus, the BRC often blocks out up to 20 seats in those classrooms so BRC students can maintain their support network within the larger context of the university.

At Oregon State’s Weatherford Hall, sophomores, juniors, and seniors who enroll start out as Affiliates. As they show more passion for entrepreneurship, they’re eligible to become Associates and then members of Weatherford Academy. At each step more resources are open to them, including better access to the ten incubator spaces. All students will take some of their courses in classrooms at Weatherford Hall and are encouraged to tinker in the machine shop located in the dorm’s basement. “The notion was that ideas don’t happen in two-hour increments,” says Kleinsorge. “We wanted a place where students could work 24/7 on their ideas.”

Despite the academic emphasis, Kleinsorge believes a huge part of the overall experience will be student interactions. “What everyone remembers about college is the social life. But as educators, we never have an opportunity to enhance or enrich the social environment,” she says. “The challenge for us is to create such a compelling living environment that people are willing to forgo their need for independent living and their desire to move to apartments or into the Greek system as juniors and seniors.” Students have been encouraged to keep photo journals during this first year so successive classes and interested outsiders can quickly see what it’s like to live at the residential entrepreneurship college.

Anson also expects Boise State’s COBE Community—which will include living quarters, a dedicated classroom, a computer lab, faculty offices, and community lounges—to offer benefits that are as much social as they are educational. First, he must interest students in the whole dorm experience, not an easy sell for a school that is traditionally attended by commuters. It’s no surprise that several of the first students to sign up for the COBE Community were foreign students who were already interested in living on campus. But Anson believes the chance to develop a real sense of community will be what ultimately wins over prospective students.

“I’ve evolved from thinking of it as an academic program to considering it an academic-related program with shared interests,” says Anson. “I’ll bring in speakers from the community and faculty members in business. A lot of the activities will be recreational. But a lot of students are taking the same courses, so they will have exchanges about the coursework and build bonds that could be really valuable. We’ll also have dinners where we’ll bring in other faculty and businesspeople and talk about the issues of the day.”

Similarly, at Central Michigan’s BRC, group activities strengthen student bonds—while also offering an educational component. One year, an excursion to a climbing wall included an entrepreneurial focus about risk. During a bowling outing, Mackin shut off the scoring mechanism to demonstrate the importance of numbers. Most well-received was an etiquette dinner that helped prepare students for the working world.

Student Search

If social life is a key ingredient in the residential college experience, it’s essential to search out and admit the right students. At Oregon State, AEP @ Weatherford is filled with a diverse mix of students—engineering majors, business majors, and nonbusiness students interested in entrepreneurship. There’s some obvious synergy. “The capstone course in electrical engineering requires seniors to create a prototype for a new technology, and the entrepreneurship minor capstone class requires an integrated business plan,” says Kleinsorge. To encourage students to develop both a prototype and a business plan, Hewlett Packard is partnering with the university to sponsor a business plan competition.

Kleinsorge has made a special effort to attract women, who eventually made up about 40 percent of the accepted applicants. She sent letters to 4,000 women asking if they knew that one out of every 11 adult women in the U.S. owns her own business and that a third of all businesses in Oregon are owned by women.

Diversity is key, but so is the commitment to entrepreneurship. “We were really looking for students who self-selected into entrepreneurship and innovation,” says Kleinsorge. She discussed the program one day at a meeting of the entrepreneurship club. “Among the students who showed up were some who were already conducting businesses bringing in more than half a million dollars a year,” she says.

All three of these schools say they’re looking for the better students—those with higher GPAs and standardized test scores as well as a demonstrated interest in business. But good grades aren’t all these directors are considering. “I’ve learned that some students with high ACTs don’t do well in the BRC,” says Central Michigan’s Mackin. “I have a couple students here who earned 4.0s even though they got a 22 on their ACTs.”

Kleinsorge agrees. “Often, the most entrepreneurial students are not the best academics,” she says. “We want to create a place where the next Bill Gates won’t have to leave the university to follow his passion.”

The Professor Is In

Not only do students have a chance to develop closer friendships with each other, but they also have an unequalled opportunity to develop strong bonds with the faculty members who live with them at the college or come in for overnight stays. In fact, Anson thinks a primary benefit of Boise State’s residential college will be the way it bridges the gap between students and faculty. “It will make them feel comfortable with one another, able to talk and exchange ideas and laugh together,” he says. “It will help students manage their careers better, and it will help faculty become more comfortable with who’s in their classrooms.”

“Often, the most entrepreneurial students are not the best academics. We want to create a place where the next Bill Gates won’t have to leave the university to follow his passion.”
—Ilene Kleinsorge, Oregon State University

The presence of an on-site faculty member gives students a deeper understanding of academic life, says O’Hara of The Collegiate Way. “They see that what they learn in the classroom is not something that stays in the classroom—it comes out and informs their lives,” he says. “I’m a biologist by training. When I’m in a residential college setting with students, I’m always pointing out what plants are in bloom or what birds are singing. Students need to see that we in the academic world have built our learning into the rest of our lives.”

He continues, “It’s easy to see how that would be done in a business context. In a social setting with a business professor, a student could see that while the faculty member listens to the news, reads magazines, and browses on the computer, he is also learning about manufacturing, inventory, stock value, and other business-related issues that students might not think of outside of class. It’s that integration of learning and life that faculty members can model for students just by being present.”

Sometimes the resident faculty members lead classes with students; other times they sponsor social events. For instance, says Kleinsorge, the entrepreneurship professor at Weatherford Hall is likely to plan a monthly tea for residents and invite outside businesspeople to interact with students. She also expects short-term guests to stay at the hall for a night or a week. “They’re likely to come in, present a class, have dinner with a select group of students, and then maybe go to breakfast with students in the academy,” she says. Other guests may include local entrepreneurs and business professionals, such as representatives from law firms and technology companies that have already agreed to send in personnel on a rotating basis.

Even at a school like Central Michigan, where the director of the Business Residential College doesn’t live at the dorm, the faculty supervisor is deeply involved with the students. Mackin has taken the residents on various expeditions and spends about 20 hours a week simply being available to students. “You have to be in a position where students will come talk to you,” he says. “You can get a lot more done just by talking than you can by holding a formal meeting. I’m spending more time this year just walking up and down the halls.”

While the benefits of a faculty-in-residence might be immeasurable for students, it sounds like a huge sacrifice for the faculty member. O’Hara admits that living in a student dorm isn’t going to appeal to every professor. “You do hear the objection that no one will want to live on campus—but you only need a very few who want to do it,” he says. “When people raise that issue, I tell them, ‘Well, Harvard and Yale seem to be able to find faculty to live on campus, and I can’t imagine their faculty are any less self-important than anybody on your campus.’”

For those faculty members who are charmed by the idea of the residential college, the lure is the chance to make a profound impact on a select group of students—while enjoying free housing at the same time. Anson, for example, has taught at Boise State for 14 years; his wife, Cindy, has been there two years longer, working in various departments from the provost’s office to student advising. The couple had planned to sell their home and downsize anyway, so they were intrigued by the opportunity to move to the residential college. Most residential colleges are looking for a faculty member who will stay for a few years, to give the program stability. And some like it so much, they essentially end up in lifetime appointments.

Trouble Spots

While some faculty may be enthralled with the idea of a residential college, says O’Hara, the university must invest a great deal of planning and financial resources before it can bring the concept to life. One key obstacle is that a residential college system requires decentralization of housing and dining operations. “I think decentralization is an advantage, but in practice it can be a bumpy thing,” O’Hara says. “The same thing is true of the physical plant—there will be issues about the grounds and the property. Maintenance and groundskeeping functions would need to be incorporated into the decentralized structure, and that takes some adjustments.”

Another potential problem is that the extra effort for the university is not usually offset with higher fees. For instance, at Central Michigan, the Business Residential College costs the school somewhat more than an ordinary dorm; however, students are not charged more to enroll. Mackin acknowledges that, with many schools facing financial hardships, a university can’t establish a program like this without being able to absorb the extra costs.

Similarly, students who enroll in the entrepreneurship program at Weatherford currently don’t pay extra for the privilege, partly because the hall is older and doesn’t command premium prices, and partly because there’s a freeze on resource fees. Kleinsorge foresees a day when students might pay more to cover costs of the informal curriculum, but, until then, funds must come from elsewhere. The $20 million required to launch the program at Oregon State was secured through a lead gift, revenue bonds, and other fundraising efforts. A portion of that went to renovate Weatherford Hall, a historic campus building that enjoyed a long history but had fallen into disrepair. Funds have also been used to pay faculty and staff and develop curricular support.

Some critics worry that students in residential colleges will be so focused on their majors and their fellow business students that they might have limited interaction with other students on campus. Others, however, see that as a low risk. Says O’Hara, “For one thing, most classes will be outside the residential campus. Formal curricular events will still be taking place on the campus, so students won’t get sequestered.”

Still, the potential for a narrowed university experience is greater with a themed college than a traditional one, and O’Hara is a passionate proponent of the cross-sectional college. “A themed residential college is better than having a dorm that functions as a hotel, but I think there are great benefits to the cross-sectional approach,” he says. “I don’t think it’s in students’ best educational interests to take an academic clique of any department and put them together in a residence. The science student needs to encounter some artists who don’t think the way he does. Business students need to understand that not everybody is motivated by profit, as they might be. Science students might be motivated by curiosity and be oblivious to whether there are practical applications to what they do.

“I think it’s important to encounter all those diverse temperaments, especially for students going into a career in management,” O’Hara continues. “They should meet people who will be like their employees—some energetic and some lazy, some honest and some dishonest, some clever and creative, some rule bound and plodding. Understanding the full richness of human behavior is very valuable.”

Potential for Success

Directors will have a better chance of gauging what has worked and what hasn’t once themed residential colleges have been up and running for a few years. At Oregon State, Kleinsorge is openly ambitious for the future. She expects that her residential college program ultimately will include marketing and legal components, as well as a venture fund. She also expects that one day executive education programs will be offered at Weatherford Hall during the summer months.

She admits the residential college project is huge, but she adds, “I think it’s the wave of the future. All states are challenged by shrinking support dollars, and they have to find alternate revenue streams to support public education. That requires collaboration, as opposed to competition.”

Kleinsorge hopes that, within a year, “success stories” will emerge to prove the project is worth the investment. “Success will be a number of businesses that have started at Oregon State and show a direct link to our program,” she says.

For Mackin, the goal is a little more modest but just as heartfelt. He believes that students who go through Central Michigan’s BRC experience will be more committed to business—and, if they choose not to pursue a business degree, that’s OK, too. “We can’t say, ‘Well, that person isn’t going to go to business school so, boy, did we screw up.’ I think if the student becomes more knowledgeable about his needs—if, in fact, he decides he doesn’t want to major in business—then we’ve been very successful on behalf of the overall university. On the other hand, those who decide to commit to business will be strongly committed with a greater motivation to perform.”

Business schools are always seeking new ways to awaken students to the possibilities of careers in business. A residential college offers them every chance to discuss and absorb theories of management and entrepreneurship while integrating business practices into their daily routines. Not only are students preparing themselves for successful careers, they are preparing themselves for meaningful lives as well.