University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto has zeroed in on an intangible of college life that has tangible consequences for both students and Kentucky's efforts to become better educated.
Capilouto's push to improve the undergraduate experience, in part by replacing outdated residence halls with new facilities that would foster "learning communities," should pay off in higher graduation rates.
Turns out mom was right. If you're serious about getting a degree, live in the dorm, certainly the first couple of years. Decades of studies have shown that dorm residents have higher grade point averages and retention rates and are more satisfied with college life.
Of course, it's not the bunk beds and mini-fridges, it's the human interactions that make the difference.
UK's aging dorms are woefully short of the kinds of public spaces and amenities that foster a sense of community among students or where faculty could lead classes and seminars or high-tech study groups could gather.
One of the main impediments to UK moving up in national rankings has been graduation rates.
To improve, UK must attract better students. To that end, Capilouto just unveiled a souped-up honors program aimed at enticing high achievers with scholarships, study abroad and other perks.
UK must also better support undergraduates once they're enrolled, and that means helping 18- and 19-year-olds find a social and intellectual niche on a big, impersonal campus.
The vast majority of UK freshmen, 88 percent, live on campus. But in order to accommodate all the incoming freshmen who applied for dorm rooms this fall, UK had to turn away about 400 returning students. They were able to get leases in off-campus developments.
What Capilouto outlined for trustees this week would leave UK with a net gain of about 4,000 dorm beds — up from the current 5,148 to about 9,200 — by the end of the decade-long plan for building new dorms and tearing down old ones.
UK will seek proposals from private developers for building new residence halls, which raises another point. The price tag can't be so high it makes living in a dorm unaffordable.