Dorm Life: Not As Advertised


Ah, campus tours. So full of hope, so riddled with optimism. “If you will look to your left you will see our nap pods, and if you look to your right you will see our gaming arcades” it’s just about every prospective students’ dream. Dorms equipped with walk-in closets, private bathrooms, rooftop pools and maid service — these don’t seem unreasonable, right? I mean, you’re paying an arm and a leg in tuition costs as it is!

With modern campuses caught up in what is popularly known as the amenities arms race, it is hard to blame incoming freshmen for expecting cushy suites and flat-screen TVs.

But most colleges have a residence hall or two that you’ll never see on the campus tour: the ones that look suspiciously like the fluorescent-lit dorms of yore.

Actually, they are the fluorescent-lit dorms of yore. Built in the middle of the last century or even earlier, they have survived to shock and dismay new freshmen with their cinder block aesthetic and dingy common rooms. Air-conditioning is a distant luxury. Bathrooms are nasty, crowded and few.

There are compensations. Older dorms are usually the cheapest, and cramped quarters foster friendships, students say. But that does not stop freshmen from looking ahead, with more than a little anticipation, to a new year — and new lodgings.

With incoming students receiving their dorm assignment about now, we at RentMoola decided to cherry-pick a few of the bunkers that former residents like to warn about. The most loathed on their campuses? Indeed, but sometimes also the most loved.

Hill College House, University of Pennsylvania

A brick fortress surrounded by a moat, Hill was designed by the modernist Eero Saarinen in the 1950s. But its rooms are small and narrow. Some first-floor windows have bars on them. And it can be unbearably hot in early fall (air-conditioning will arrive over the next few years; in the meantime, the website warns to bring fans).

Incoming Penn freshmen tend to prefer the Quadrangle, a century-old Tudor Gothic complex, all masonry curlicues and graceful courtyards. When a majority of your friends live in the Quad, and they’re talking about how comfortable it is, and you’re talking about how you’re sweating all night, you begin to think, “well, Hill sucks.” Quad, which comprises three houses, has its own flaws. It is also old, leaky and favoured by vermin.

Quadrangle Hall, University of Iowa

The university is building a new dorm — a $95 million, 12-story complex on the Iowa River with a dining hall, gym and clusters of private bathrooms, to be completed in 2017. But before it opens, Iowa will demolish one of its oldest dorms, a low brick building that was designed as a World War I barracks but now houses freshmen who consider themselves unlucky in the extreme. It kind of always smells like it’s 100 years old, and it’s kind of like a mixture of mildew and old people.

The water pressure is all but nonexistent, when the plumbing is working. Cockroach sightings are common. Some rooms house up to four students.

Still, students emphasize that camaraderie is born of mutual suffering. They’re all in it together, and nobody really has it better than anybody else.

Andros, University of South Florida

Let’s start with the showers, so small students have trouble raising their arms above their head to lather their hair, with water temperatures that veer from freezing to scalding. Plus, the 60s-era soap holders are an exact match for someone’s grandmother’s.

There are funny smells, unusual carpet stains, and crazy (sometimes sketchy) things happening. If you’re going to be living there, make the best of it.

Recognizing that Andros has aged badly, and needing more student housing, the university plans to tear down its eight structures over the next few years and replace them with a student “village,” including a dining hall, gym, outdoor pool and shops.

For the university, the benefits go beyond student comfort. The project proposal insists that the complex “have a positive impact on prospective students’ perceptions of U.S.F. during the campus tour.”

Low Rises 6 and 7, Cornell University

The squat brick Low Rises 6 and 7 are on the north side of campus, with a reputation for inconvenience and worse. The ceilings are cracked. The toilets are temperamental. The furniture is chipping. The heaters often work at full blast, or not at all, as happened over winter break this year, forcing students who had stayed over the holidays to sleep in the common rooms. Hair so frequently clogs some of the shower drains that clumps of it begin, mysteriously, to accumulate on the side of the tubs.

Even the lights, compared to newer residence halls like Mews Hall, seem a little bit dimmer.

CU Nooz, Cornell’s Onion-style website, put a wickedly fine point on it in October, when it published an item headlined “Students Organize Carwash to Support Suffering Residents of High and Low Rise Community.”

When students received their dorm assignments, some literally started crying, because they were so upset.

A mazelike layout of isolated “suites,” each dorm houses seven students sharing a bathroom. The split-level design was, it happens, an architectural experiment meant to foster community. And students say they have come to appreciate Low Rise for just that. Students gather in common areas after nights out or to study instead of retreating to their rooms.

Garner Hall, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

In 2011,, a now-defunct website, ranked Garner the worst dorm in America. But the university had long before acknowledged that the hall, built in 1958, had “outlived its useful life,” as its website says, and the dorm was torn down. The demolition, the year after the ranking, was coincidence, and the “worst” distinction was based on just a handful of reviews.

But even the least frilly dorms can inspire nostalgia among alumni, who include the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson (440 Garner Hall, 1959-60). Some 300 donors remember Garner fondly enough to have paid $150 for one of its bricks. Funds go to room and board for students with financial need.

About 200 bricks are left. The pitch: “Now is your chance to preserve a small part of Garner Hall for yourself and your family. Own a piece of history.”

So as you can see, none of these dorms are without their unique charms — despite how inhabitable they may seem. Also, to make life a little simpler once you’re gambling your life in these living conditions, you can sign up free with RentMoola to pay your student housing fees and other one-time payments online! Additionally, when you sign up for RentMoola you can subscribe to our MoolaPerks, which get you deals and discounts to amenities such as utilities, travel, entertainment and shopping! Life is sweet with RentMoola.


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Rich Elliott

The author Rich Elliott

Rich is the Marketing Director at RentMoola, he enjoys rugby, food, and his pet Corgi Prince.

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