Living-Learning Communities: Separating Fact From Speculation

This post was authored by Anshu Patel as part of the 2020 undergraduate series.

Growing up in an ethnic enclave – a primarily South Asian community – one of the experiences I looked forward to most in college was developing diverse friendships. As a result, I chose to live in traditional dorm housing, where I would be exposed to people of various backgrounds. Others see college as an avenue to explore aspects of their identities, including their gender expression, sexual orientation, or race/ethnicity; and others just want to meet like-minded people. To cater to these needs, many higher-education institutions now offer students the option to reside in “Living-Learning Communities” (LLCs), instead of typical dorm housing.

Typical dorm housing generally places students randomly in same-sex residence halls, whereas living-learning communities are intentionally built to house students with commonalities. These communities, especially those that are focused on identity-based characteristics, have become increasingly popular over the years. There are three types of LLCs: the identity-based ones, interest-based LLCs, and a hybrid of the identity-based and interest-based residences. Whereas students in identity-based LLCs share identities such as race/ethnicity, nationality, or sexual orientation, interest-based LLCs strive to unite groups of students through common passions, goals, and worldviews. In these types of LLCs, students may bond over their love of art or their drive to better the environment. There are also hybrids of the two, for example the several women-in-STEM themed communities that exist across many campuses. While research on LLCs does exist, there is often a lack of distinction between the categories of LLCs in current literature. This may hinder the understanding of the nuances of each. I will review the benefits of these living-learning communities, as well as the potential downsides of their proliferation.

Interest-based LLCs

Much of the research that has been conducted on LLCs has been primarily focused on interest-based communities, albeit unintentionally. These studies, most of which apply their findings to all LLCs regardless of the communities’ actual emphasis, have found some support for the assumed psychological benefits of interest-based LLCs. One primary reason cited in favor of LLCs is their ability to smooth the transition from high school to college, specifically for vulnerable student populations. There is some support for this argument in the literature: first-generation college students (i.e., the first in their family to pursue a four-year degree), who are more likely to come from a lower socioeconomic background and who may struggle with adjusting to the college environment relative to continuing-generation peers (Terenzini et al. 1996), have shown better academic and social transitions to college when living in LLCs than their counterparts in traditional dorms (Inkelas, Daver, Vogt, & Leonard, 2006). More specifically, first-generation college students attending moderate to highly competitive four year universities, reported greater comfort interacting with professors outside of class, asking for academic help, and forming study groups, as well as positive relationships with peers in their residence halls (including roommates). However, it is important to note that the study did not control for the type of LLCs the students belonged in, so it is difficult to generalize the results to all LLCs.

In another study, Pasque and Murphy (2005) focused exclusively on the academic benefits of interest-based LLCs. Specifically, they found that participation in living-learning programs was a significant predictor of intellectual engagement (e.g., participating in socio-cultural discussions, engaging with faculty in- and outside of the classroom, and critical thinking) as well as academic achievement (college GPA). These findings highlight the importance of community in fostering academic and professional success, as well as potential socioeconomic mobility for working- and middle-class students.

Identity-based LLCs

There has been less formal investigation into the effects of identity-based LLCs. However, it is important to understand the multiple roles these LLCs play in academic spaces through both current events and other well-studied psychological phenomena. There is growing concern regarding the treatment of students of Color in academic spaces; just these past couple of years Black and Brown students have been ostracized from their campus communities in abhorrent ways (Lovett, 2011; “Racist graffiti on college campus…” 2020). For example, in May of 2018, a Black graduate student at Yale was reported to the police by a White peer for sleeping in the common room of her own dorm after a long night of studying (Caron, 2018). This type of incident demonstrates the need for safe spaces for minority student populations. Identity-based LLCs can serve as spaces for students to explore various aspects of their identity. For example, cultural events such as dance performances and festival celebrations provide an avenue for students to experience their identities in both novel and familiar ways.

Nevertheless, identity specific groups may have a negative effect on the overall health of cross-ethnic relationships on campus. According to contact theory (Allport, 1954), interactions between different groups of people (e.g., between an Asian student and a Latinx student) are beneficial to the promotion of tolerance toward people from diverse backgrounds. Specifically, contact with someone from a designated “out-group” (i.e., a member of a group that is not my own) promotes familiarity with and the humanization of that group. Empirical evidence for contact theory, gathered from housing projects in the 1950s, showed that White tenants who lived in desegregated housing expressed less prejudice towards their Black neighbors than White tenants living in segregated housing (Deutsch & Collins, 1951). However, Allport specified three important addendums to the hypothesis: 1) the groups that individuals are a part of must have equal societal status, 2) individuals in the social interaction must cooperate toward achieving a common goal, and 3) there must be positive support from authority figures (e.g., professors, campus administration) for the intergroup interaction in order for contact to be advantageous. With respect to the first addendum, it is arguable that marginalized students do not have equal status on campus grounds, evidenced by the events at Yale.

A study conducted by Pettigrew, Tropp, Wagner, & Christ (2011), on the other hand, suggests that Allport’s conditions for contact may not be necessary. Pettigrew and colleagues (2011) found that though equal status and common goals magnified the strength to which participants’ prejudice was reduced, only contact was necessary for positive outcomes. Nonetheless, the benefits of contact theory are not uniform amongst various groups. First, it is well documented that the positive effects of contact are far greater for white people than for people of Color, indicating the importance of group status (Tropp & Pettigrew, 2005). And, when considering people of Color specifically, Chen & Graham (2015) found that group status continues to play a role. More specifically, when Asian students developed friendships with white and Latinx peers, Asian youth reported more tolerant attitudes and behaviors towards the respective groups. However, even when Asian students developed friendships with Black peers (who belong to a more societally marginalized group), attitudes toward African Americans were more resistant to change. These findings reinforce the idea that Allport’s addendums influence the strength with which intergroup contact affects prejudice.


In sum, living-learning communities have the potential to be enriching spaces for students, making the difficult transition from high school to college more manageable. However, limited research has actually explored the specific benefits and pitfalls of LLCs, and whether the type of LLC a student is living in affects these outcomes. When choosing one’s first housing situation it is important to consider that many of the purported strengths of living-learning communities may not currently be supported by empirical data. Ask yourself what is important to you, and remember that there are ways to make meaningful connections outside of a residence hall, regardless of whether you choose to live in a LLC or a traditional dorm.


Allport, G. (1954). The Nature of Prejudice. Addison-Wesley.

Caron, C. (2018, May 9). A Black yale student was napping, and a White student called the police. The New York Times.

Chen, X., & Graham, S. (2015). Cross-ethnic friendships and intergroup attitudes among asian american adolescents. Child Development, 86(3), 749–764.

Deutsch, M., & Collins, M. (1951). Interracial housing: A psychological evaluation of a social experiment. University of Minnesota Press.

Inkelas, K. K., Daver, Z. E., Vogt, K. E., & Leonard, J. B. (2007). Living–learning programs and first-generation college students’ academic and social transition to college. Research in Higher Education, 48(4), 403–434.

Lovett, I. (2011, March 15). U. C. L. A. Student’s video rant against Asians fuels firestorm. The New York Times.

Pasque, P. A., & Murphy, P. (2005). The intersections of living-learning programs and social identity as factors of academic achievement and intellectual engagement.

Pettigrew, T. F., Tropp, L. R., Wagner, U., & Christ, O. (2011). Recent advances in intergroup contact theory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 35(3), 271–280.

Racist graffiti on college campus; group wants investigation. (2020, January 27). AP NEWS.

Terenzini, P. T., Springer, L., Yaeger, P. M., Pascarella, E. T., & Nora, A. (1996). First-generation college students: Characteristics, experiences, and cognitive development. Research in Higher Education, 37(1), 1–22.

Tropp, L. R., & Pettigrew, T. F. (2005). Relationships between intergroup contact and prejudice among minority and majority status groups. Psychological Science, 16(12), 951-957.


I am a recent UCLA graduate with a B.A. in Psychology and a minor in Film, Television and Digital Media Studies. My research interests lie in body image and dyadic relationships, specifically intimate relationships. Currently, I work as a research assistant with both the High School Diversity Project and the UCLA Marriage Lab.