Residence Hall or Dormitory: What do you call them?

By Edward Dadez

Michigan State University

If there was one word that residence hall educators would like to see erased from university campus vocabularies, it would be the word "dormitory." This archaic term used to describe a building where students reside is outdated and contrary to the beliefs of professionals in the field of student development. The current language designates these buildings as residence halls and/or living-learning centers. To assist in the understanding of this terminology, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1970) will be used as a model to differentiate between the words "dormitory" and "residence hall." Granted, Maslow’s developmental theory is used for identifying sources of human motivation, but it can also be easily adapted into a comprehensible model contrasting dormitories and residence halls.

Maslow’s needs theory is divided into five distinct levels for identifying sources of human motivation. These five levels are:

Maslow states that an individual endeavors to satisfy needs from the most basic level and works successively through the next higher order levels. Maslow holds that an individual will not seek needs at the next higher level until the needs or any given lower level are achieved to the individual’s satisfaction.

With a dormitory philosophy, staff tend to be concerned only with the two most basic levels, physiological and security. Physiological needs deal with the basic human needs of food, shelter, and clothing. Examples of these needs are: adequate housing, furnished room, linen, cleanliness, good plumbing, etc. Security needs deal with individuals feeling sage in their environment. Examples of these needs are: locking the doors at night, security staff, regulation of room keys, identification cards, maintenance, etc. These needs must be met to assist the student in moving toward higher levels.

With a residence hall philosophy, not only are these concerns with the two most basic levels, but also with program activities which respond to the higher three levels. Contemporary residence hall staff would consider these first two levels as maintenance functions and would contend that significant student growth and direction takes place in the next three levels (Riker and DeCoster, 1971). Residence halls administrators/educators tend to look at the first two levels as givens, meaning that these are necessities which must be accommodated so as to move quickly to the heart of the developmental levels.

Student development departments have undergraduate students, graduate students, and/or professionals to assist with this task. These staff members not only deal with the physical and safety needs of the building, but also with the emotional and intellectual concerns of the student. One of their important responsibilities is to build a sense of belonging and community (level 3) on the floors and in the residence halls. Sense of belonging deals with the individual being accepted by others. The staff accomplishes this task by having consistent rules and regulations, roommate contracting, floor gatherings, meetings, programming, etc. The self-esteem level (Level 4) concerns itself with assisting the individual with skills of self-confidence and recognition by others. Examples of these needs are: assertiveness programming, responsible citizenship, tutorial programs, hall councils, leadership training, etc. The self-actualization level (Level 5) deals with maximizing one’s potential in obtaining opportunities for individual development and growth . Examples of these needs are: personal growth, achievement, creativity, seeking autonomy, risk taking, etc. Responding to these three higher level needs assist the resident in developing into a mature responsible adult.

The residence hall is seen as encompassing the responsibilities of the dormitory while incorporating the higher developmental and educational needs of the student. Student development professionals perceive their building to be more than just dormitories where residents sleep, study and live passively. They perceive them to be living-learning centers where students are provided learning experiences which assist in facilitating their developmental awareness of self and others. Professionals have been successful in this endeavor and will continue to work for the betterment of all residents’ developmental needs.



A.H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality. 2nd edition. New York. Harper

and Row, 1970

H.C. Riker and D.A. DeCoster. "The Educational Role in College Student

Housing." Journal of College and University Student Housing. 1971, 1-4.

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