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When Scott Thatcher started classes at the University of Utah, living on campus never crossed his mind.

"You're closer to the ski resorts if you're living at home," said the international-studies major. And, most important, "You don't have to pay any money."

Like many young men in Utah, he served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shortly after starting college. But now, the 23-year-old is a tad jealous of the connections his on-campus friends made — and their easy access to the food court. For the first time, the junior considered moving onto campus this fall.

The U. ranked among the top 10 schools in the country for the number of freshmen living off campus in 2011, according to U.S. News & World Report. But new U. data indicate changing that culture could help students improve academically.

"It's hard to drill down tightly, but we can get trend data that shows [students who live on campus] have a GPA that's at least 0.2 higher," said Barbara Remsburg, the U.'s director of housing and residential education.

And academic measures are looking more urgent as the U. compares itself with its new peers: It had the Pac-12's lowest graduation rates in 2011, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Though research conflicts on whether living on campus helps academically, student interest in U. residence halls is up. In the past three years, the average number of students on the wait list has grown 66 percent, according to housing department numbers, to nearly 400 students last year.

"There are an increasing number of students who want that college experience," Remsburg said. "Even if they live across the street, they don't want to live across the street and go to school."

Most of the U.'s on-campus housing is located at Fort Douglas, east of the main campus, in a development built as an athletes' village for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Along with the 2,400-student capacity there, the U. also owns apartment buildings downtown and last year opened a 309-bed honors residence hall. A new housing complex for budding student entrepreneurs, the Lassonde Living Learning Center, is planned for 2016.

The addition will bring the number of available beds to 3,143, but officials expect demand to outpace supply by more than 1,000 beds in six years. With land on campus at a premium, building more dorms is a tall order.

Clamoring for space on campus will be students such as U. senior Matt Fagen, for whom residential college is a "rite of passage." Fagen started college at the U., then switched to Utah State University for his sophomore year and loved the more residential feel.

"That was amazing," said Fagen, who later returned to the U. to finish preparing for medical school. "The connections you make and involvement on campus is so much better, and it's really important for a college experience to have those things."

About 22 percent of USU students live on campus, compared with about 13 percent at the U.

"In every category, students on campus ... did a lot better," said Steven Jenson, executive director of housing and residence life at USU. Off campus, "there wouldn't necessarily be anyone who's there at the crossroads to help students succeed."

Some studies have confirmed that, apparently because students living on campus tend to join more clubs, participate in more school activities, visit professors during their office hours more often and may be able to concentrate more easily on their work.

But other research has called that into question. Students who decide to live on campus tend to come from higher-income households with parents who already have a college education — groups more likely to succeed in school anyway, according to a 2010 study published in the journal Urban Education.

"In almost every measure, including academic performance, students who lived on campus were significantly more advantaged than those who did not, especially compared to those who lived off campus with family," authors Ruth Turley and Geoffrey Wodtke wrote.

When those factors are removed, many of those gains disappear, according to the report, which examined all students enrolled in U.S. postsecondary institutions during fiscal 2000.

And living on campus is far from the only factor in academic success. At USU, for example, graduation rates run close to those at the U. — about 53 percent in 2011 compared with 55 percent at the U.

In the Pac-12, many schools with higher graduation rates than the U. also have higher levels of students living on campus, according to the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. News & World Report. But others with even fewer residential students nevertheless have higher graduation rates, including the University of Washington in Seattle.

Like the U., UW is an urban school, and universities in cities tend to have more commuters, Remsburg said.

"You have institutions that are surrounded by cornfields," she said, "and they have more individuals living on campus because there's no other game in town."

Salt Lake City's public transit system and affordable housing can make living off campus an attractive option.

At the U., the Mormon culture could also play into housing decisions. Most LDS men go on missions at age 19 (lowered to 18 in October), and those students may not see a reason to move on campus before they leave. Many also marry shortly after their return two years later.

While living on campus may not be an academic panacea, some students do directly benefit, according to Turley and Wodtke.

"Minority students (especially black students) who live off campus with their families are more likely than comparable whites to live in isolated, disadvantaged residential areas, which may inhibit success in college," they wrote. But those students are less likely to be able to afford the cost — $7,706 a year for a double room and a meal plan at the U. — of living in residence halls.

"Some scholarships provide opportunities that include housing," Remsburg said. "There are private programs that support students coming to the university to support their housing and meals, but there's always a need for more." Twitter: @lwhitehurst

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