PROVO — Location, location, location. It's not just important when buying a house or setting up a business. It also may be an accurate predictor of risky behavior in college dorms, according to a new BYU study.
The study of on-campus college housing environments found that students who lived in coed rather than same-gender dorms were 2½ times more likely to binge drink, more than twice as likely to have had multiple sexual partners in the past year and more likely to use pornography.
"What we're trying to say with this study is … we really need to look at housing environment and understand it," said Jason Carroll, an associate professor in the School of Family Life and co-author of the study, which will be published Tuesday in The Journal of American College Health.
"This (co-ed) environment largely creates different expectations," Carroll continued. "What does it mean as you head down the hallway to the showers, that there's going to be mixed gender? What does that mean when there's that kind of proximity and association?"
The study surveyed 510 college students from five universities, not including BYU or any another Utah school.
They included two public universities in the Midwest and one on the West Coast, plus a liberal arts college and an East Coast religious university.
Carroll and lead author Brian Willoughby had previously identified 90 percent of U.S. college housing as now coed, a huge shift from 20 years ago, yet there's hardly any research on how that change has affected students, Willoughby said.
Willoughby, Carroll's former student and now a visiting assistant professor at BYU, said he believes the coed dorm environment leads students to believe that binge drinking and sexual activity are going on at higher rates than they really are, or that "everybody is doing it."
"If they understand that not everyone is doing it, they're less likely to move toward that perceived norm," Willoughby said.
But as it stands, the study found that in coed dorms, 56 percent of residents reported weekly drinking, versus 27 percent in gender-specific housing. Binge-drinking differences were 42 percent in coed dorms to 18 percent in the same-gender dorms.
Sexual attitudes were also far more lax in coed housing: 44 percent said it was OK to "get together for sex and not expect anything further," compared to 26 percent in the gender-specific housing.
These results were not because all the "party animals" lived together, or because those with looser morals congregated in one spot, Carroll said.
Quite the opposite, in fact, as the researchers learned that most students didn't request where to live, but were simply placed in housing by the university.
Other factors such as religiosity, age, socioeconomic status, family background and dating history were all taken into consideration and couldn't account for the differences in risky behavior.
Both professors are quick to say this study is not all-inclusive but simply one step toward evaluating college housing and how it impacts all students.
"There are a lot of efforts right now at universities to combat binge drinking and risky sexual behavior," Willoughby said. "Hopefully this study would give them one more thing to potentially look at."