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A Look at Student Housing Cooperatives

Knowledgebase > A Look at Student Housing Cooperatives

Deborah Altus traces the roots of student co-ops back to the early part of this century, and reports that social activism tends to attract co-opers as much as inexpensive housing. For many, student housing is their first taste of group living. Increasing contacts between student residential cooperatives and other intentional communities can provide students opportunities to extend their cooperative experiences into lifetime careers.

Student housing cooperatives provide an ideal opportunity for members to learn skills for intentional community living. In a student housing cooperative, members share living quarters that they themselves manage. Resident self-management provides co-op me mbers with a degree of autonomy often coveted by their dormitory-residing counterparts. But with autonomy comes the responsibility of managing a household in which members play the dual roles of tenant and landlord. While this level of responsibility may be unwelcome to some, many student co-op members enjoy the opportunity to learn skills ranging from baking bread and repairing faucets to overseeing financial records and running group meetings.

Student housing cooperatives offer the immediate tangible benefit of cutting living costs. But, in the long run, the less tangible benefits received from group living and member management probably outweigh any direct financial savings. Co-op members live in a situation that requires them to share resources, set and work toward goals, make decisions, reach compromises, and learn how to get along with each other. The active, daily practice of cooperation that goes on in student housing co-ops prepares memb ers for a life beyond the ivory tower that can be both individually rewarding and helpful to the broader community.


The Six Cooperative Principles

The roots of student housing cooperatives can be traced back to a group of weavers in mid-nineteenth-century England, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers. They formed a cooperative business to escape from the horrendous conditions in the factories where they worked and also to gain greater control over their lives. They established a set of principles, six of which are practiced today by cooperatives around the world: open membership; one member, one vote; limited return on share capital; not-for-p rofit operation; continuous education, and cooperation among cooperatives.1 Although student housing cooperatives vary widely in their practices, most follow these six principles.

Rochdale-model cooperative housing in the United States dates back to the late 1800s to several apartment associations that operated cooperatively in New York City.2 Students first became involved in the cooperative movement around the same period, as sho wn by the founding of the Harvard Cooperative Society in 1882. A few student housing cooperatives opened their doors around the turn of the century, with Northwestern University opening what may have been the first student housing co-op in 1886.3 The firs t wave of student housing co-ops typically served self-supporting women students for whom economical housing was essential to remaining in school.


Student Housing Co-ops for Women

The Universities of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Kansas all offered cooperative housing for self-supporting women students during the teens and 1920s. Although financial concerns were an important deciding factor for women to join these co-ops, the residents clearly reaped additional benefits. Helen Hanely, a student housing co-op member in 1920, described the benefits as she saw them: “A cooperative houseÉis an advantage to a Freshman girl because she has the opportunity to become readily acquainted with a l arge group of girls. Besides lessening expense, the girls produce a home atmosphere which to me means a great deal.ÉEach girl in the house must give and take as circumstances dictate, and in this way, she learns the spirit of cooperation.”4

Indeed, membership in Helen’s co-op, the Wita Wentin House, was so meaningful to members that a group of the women kept up a round-robin letter for 60 years following their residence at the co-op.

The number of student housing cooperatives grew rapidly during the 1930s, but, despite conventional wisdom, the depression was not the sole motivating factor for starting new co-ops. The students who began the co-ops were concerned not only with the econo mics of cooperation but with pressing social issues ranging from peace to racism. Some were inspired by the teachings of Toyohiko Kagawa, a Japanese clergyman who preached that cooperatives were the foundation for world peace.5 In the 1940s, racially inte grated student housing co-ops began to appear on college campuses across the nation and were dubbed “a triumph over racial superstition and prejudice.”6 In many cases, these co-ops offered the first racially integrated housing on campus.


Today’s Campus Co-ops

Student housing cooperatives remain active on college campuses across North America, and, in some places, are expanding. At the University of Calif-ornia, Berkeley, 1,220 students live in cooperative houses, and at the University of Minnesota, 500 student s are housed in cooperative apartments. The Inter-Cooperative Council at the University of Mich-igan houses 560 students in co-ops, while 811 students live cooperatively at the University of Texas. In Waterloo, Ontario, 984 students at the University of W aterloo live in cooperatives, and co-ops house over 1,200 students in Toronto, Ontario.7

Student housing cooperatives differ widely from place to place. Some co-ops are small, homey groups, housing only a dozen or so students. Others are enormous high-rises, serving hundreds of members. Some co-ops have a long history of leftist political inv olvement, dating back to 1930s socialist activities. Others, like some of the farm-affiliated co-op houses in the Midwest, are more conservative.


North American Students of Cooperation

The organization of student housing cooperatives goes beyond the local level. Students have formed a binational cooperative organization, the North American Students of Cooperation, or NASCO, which provides education, development, and support services for student cooperatives around the United States and Canada. NASCO’s precursor, NASCL (the North American Student Cooperative League) started during the co-op boom in the 1940s. The energy of NASCL members compensated for slim budgets (NASCL operated for a time out of a broom closet in a co-op house at the University of Kansas), and the league played an active role in organizing cooperatives throughout North America in the 1940s and 50s.8 After remaining dormant for about a decade, NASCL was rejuvenated in 1968 in the form of NASCO — an organization that has been energetically promoting student cooperatives for over 25 years.

NASCO offers many important services to its member co-ops.9 It began the Campus Cooperative Development Corporation, which has helped to establish co-ops at a number of different universities over the past decade. NASCO offers a yearly institute, where co -opers from across North America come to learn about the principles and practices of consumer cooperation, to share ideas, to enjoy each other’s company, and to renew their commitment to a cooperative society. NASCO Networks with Other Types of Intentional Communities

NASCO also offers a summer internship program that places student co-op members in short-term jobs in the cooperative sector, including other intentional communities. These internships not only further the intern’s cooperative education, but they provide the hosts with enthusiastic workers who are eager to promote the cooperative movement. NASCO summer interns helped to organize the Celebration of Community conference in 1993, and a former NASCO member serves on the board of the Foundation for Intentional Community (FIC). Members of both organizations have attended each other’s meetings to establish wider networks.

The recent cooperation between NASCO and the FIC is exciting. In the past, the intentional communities’ and cooperative movements — despite their similarities — have often followed separate paths. In fact, the cooperative movement has sometimes delibera tely dissociated itself from communitarian activity — a practice dating back to James Peter Warbasse, the first president of the Cooperative League of the United States of America. Warbasse wanted the cooperative movement to be free from the negative pub lic opinion sometimes accompanying communal activities.10

For nearly a century, student housing cooperatives have been a presence on college campuses. They have survived tumultuous events in our society — several wars, the Depression, student uprisings — to represent one of the more durable forms of student ho using. Amid the enormous problems facing society today, the student cooperative movement serves as an important reminder of the benefits of pooling resources, energy, and talent for the common good.



1. Sekerak, E. and A. Danforth, Consumer Cooper-ation: The Heritage and the Dream (Santa Clara, CA: Consumers Cooperative Publishing, 1980). Provides a good overview of consumer cooperation.

2. Siegler, R. and H.J. Levy, “Brief History of Cooperative Housing,” Cooperative Housing Journal (1986), 12-19.

3. Stiebeling, H., Survey of Student Housing Cooper-atives (Emporia, KS: Kansas State Normal School, 1921).

4. Hanely, H.A., “How 3,400 K.U. Students Are Living: As the Students Tell It,” The University of Kansas Newsletter, 20(4) (1920), 1.

5. Schildgen, R., Toyohiko Kagawa: Apostle of Love and Social Justice (Berkeley, CA: Centenary Books, 1988). Describes the work of Kagawa in detail.

6. Central League of Campus Co-ops (Kansas City, MO: Consumers Cooperative Association, September 1, 1947). I am grateful to Jim Jones, Executive Director of the Inter-Cooperative Council at the University of Michigan, for providing me with a copy of this pamphlet.

7. 1991-1992 Guide to Campus Co-ops, (Ann Arbor, MI: NASCO).

8. Buchele, Luther, former executive secretary of NASCL and former general manager of the Inter-Cooperative Council, University of Michigan, in personal conversations about NASCL and early student housing cooperatives.

9. North American Students of Cooperation, Box 7715, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor MI 48107, 313-663-0889. The NASCO main office is in the University of Michigan Student Union.

10. Spann, E. K. Brotherly Tomorrows: Movements for a Cooperative Society in America, 1820-1920 (New York: Columbia University, 1989), 268-269.

About the Author

Deborah Altus is a cooperative movement historian. She is an active board member with the Communal Studies Association, a former Foundation for Intentional Community alternate board member, and she served as the guest editor of the spring 1994 issue of Communities magazine on the theme of “Women in Community: Yesterday and Today.” A former member of several housing cooperatives, Deborah remains active in her local food co-op. She works as a researcher at the KU Gerontology Center where she studies shared housing arrangements for older people. Deborah gratefully acknowledges Commonwealth Terrace Co-op, Falcon Heights, Minnesota, for their financial support of her research.

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