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Bohemian or cottagecore? Indie or industrial? Retro or preppy? And, does it match what your roommate ordered?

Having spent much of the past two and a half years at home due to the pandemic, with their bedrooms as the backdrop for their social media content, the current generation of college students naturally would be passionate about aesthetics. At least, that makes sense to Amanda Zuckerman, the CEO and founder of Dormify, a company focused on college dorm and apartment furnishings.

And beyond personal style, Zuckerman said that functionality and comfort shouldn’t be overlooked. 

“Your parents want to send you away feeling comfortable, like you’re in a space that sort of supports everything that you’re doing on a daily basis at college,” Zuckerman said. “Because if you’re not starting and ending your day in a space that’s functional and inspiring and warm and cozy, then how are you expected to be your best self on campus?”

On average, American families spend about $1,200 on back-to-college costs, according to the National Retail Federation. While some spend much more, buying with the help of consultants from retailers like Dormify, Dormco and others that specialize in dorm furniture and decor, and entering decorating contests, others are financially strapped with just the minimum college expenses, and are put in a difficult position when faced with “invisible” costs, such as making a dorm room livable.

“The kids who can’t afford a mini fridge are going to feel bad when it comes time to split the cost in the dorm room,” said Susan Dynarski, an education professor at Harvard University.

Beyond the flashy ads from specialized online retailers and hard-to-miss displays in big box stores, there are other options for students who need them, including giveaway programs, DIY projects and shopping second hand. 

Related: Luxury private student housing further divides rich and poor on campuses 

Students who live in the dorms make up only a small percentage of college goers, since many students commute to college, live off-campus or study online. At private, nonprofit colleges, about 60 percent of students live in the dorms, and at public colleges, about 36 percent live in the dorms, according to a 2016 report from the Urban Institute. The share of low-income students varies by how selective the institution is, but 70 percent of all students at public colleges receive Pell grants and 30 percent of students at private, nonprofit colleges receive Pell grants, according to an analysis by The Institute for College Access and Success.

Dynarski said that for the students who do live in the dorms, the inequality is a manifestation of the outside world. She said that entering a four-year, residential college is often like entering into an upper-middle-class life.

“And if you’re not arriving with the accoutrements of upper-class life, then it’s difficult to engage with your peers socially, and then ultimately academically as well,” Dynarski said.

The University of Cincinnati conducts a contest for the best room decor, called What’s Your #UC Room Drip? Credit: Image provided by Maleah Taylor/University of Cincinnati 

One benefit of going to college is the networks students form and then can plug into after college in the workforce, she said, “so anything that holds up people forming cohesive social connections with their classmates is going to reduce the benefits of college.”

Ideally, colleges would find a way to address this proactively, rather than put the onus on the student to come forward, Dynarski said. 

Related: Decoding the price of college: Complexity of figuring out costs holds students back

Though Dormify benefits from families who spend tons of money and can meet with Dormify design consultants in the New York showroom or via Zoom to help create the perfect home away from home, Zuckerman said her company tries to help low-income students, too.  

Each year, Dormify partners with private scholarship funds to provide dorm decor to students receiving those scholarships, and Zuckerman said the company is about to launch a dorm decor giveaway program for students from low-income backgrounds.

They also have a student ambassador program that gives students discount codes to offer to their friends or social media followers, and earn points as people make purchases with their codes. The student ambassadors can use their points to cash in on free dorm decor, and can be entered into giveaways, Zuckerman said.

To make their dorm rooms cozy and personal, Zuckerman suggested students turn to social media where they can learn to “get the look for less,” by making it themselves or shopping during sales. 

“You can make, you know, a photo collage that doesn’t cost very much money and actually totally transforms your room, or you get, you know, a set of lights that give that wow factor,” Zuckerman said. “There are a lot of great tools out there to really transform things that you can get at a low cost.”

Brittany Dickinson, the manager for sustainability at Goodwill International, said another low-cost way to infuse personal style into a dorm room is to shop second-hand. 

“What I love about thrifting just personally is that it can give you your own personality,” she said. “Your things that you purchase are not the same exact things as everyone else in your dorm.”

She said students can find most of what they need for their dorm at Goodwill, and it is not only cheaper, it’s also better for the environment, she said. Buying things second-hand eliminates the plastic and cardboard that would otherwise end up in dumpsters behind the dorm, and prevents the item from ending up in a landfill.

“It’s much more sustainable to buy something that already exists that is used, that is pre-loved, or pre-worn, as opposed to buying a new product that’s maybe from the most ethically sourced materials and from a company that has touted lots of environmental benefits,” Dickinson said. 

And whether students bought new or used at the start of the new year, she said they should consider donating items they will no longer need when it comes time to move out, so that someone else can use them.

This story about dorm decor was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Olivia Sanchez is a higher education reporter. She previously covered local and state government for the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. Sanchez earned a bachelor's degree in psychology...

Letters to the Editor

3 Letters

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  1. OK, I learned something. I was prepared to dismiss this article as silly. But I learned that dormmates might expect their mates to share the expense for something like a fridge. Spreading the word to make sure people don’t is a good purpose for this piece. So cheers.

  2. Having recently arrived on a college campus, I was very harshly struck by the presence of fraternities within what I assumed to be a studious student body. Within one week of arriving on campus, I had been profiled as Jewish by a fraternity member, offered alcohol by another, and accompanied a female friend of mine around campus due to her fear of fraternity members. At the end of all of this, I was left with the question of why. Why do universities allow these groups on campus? Surely any organization or group of organizations that has a consistent track record of violating federal drinking law, sexual violence, harassment, binge drinking, exclusion, and being a general nuisance on campus would be removed. While I do not anticipate these groups being removed during my time on campus, I look forward to the day when student bodies see them for what they are: an antiquated system worthy of ending.

  3. This is an interesting article. I’m…amazed… that anyone could or would spend 1,200 on non-essential items to decorate and furnish a room. It was over 20 years ago that I went to college. Maybe costs are so high now because of inflation. 😋 My room had a bed and a place to hang clothes and some drawers. I bought some cheap foldable crates to serve as a cheap bookcase for my school books, a CD player, some headphones and put up some pictures of family and friends on the wall with blue sticky tack. Cost me probably less than 150 at Walmart and that was me sorted for 4 years. My social life was great too. I got involved in lots of clubs and activities. The way my room looked wasn’t important. But it was a great place to get away from people, listen to music and study. My advice to students who feel the need to decorate and keep up with rich kids is shop the thrift stores like the article mentions. It is possible to have a great social life at college and make lifetime friends without spending a lot on extras. At least it was for me 20 years ago. Imo it’s never worth spending lots of money to try and better your social status or increase your self-worth by comparing yourself to others. Money doesn’t buy happiness.

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