Shopping for, and decorating, college dorms

In the coming weeks, thousands of tiny white rooms on campuses throughout the country will be welcoming their newest residents and their carloads of stuff. Freshman orientation for the Class of 2016 has actually been in full throttle for months at big-box stores (both brick and mortar and online), at specialty sites such as Etsy, on Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and on Pinterest boards. Incoming students have been stockpiling decorating ideas along with ramen noodle soup.

Although the shaky economy has students and their families rattled about college loan debt and living expenses, they will spend an average of $907.22 this year on everything from comforters to hand-held vacuums, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation. That is up from $808.71 in 2011.

“Students want to make their rooms less utilitarian and more like home,” says Sarah Daniels, Catholic University of America’s director of residence life.

While college-issue furniture for an average 225-square-foot dorm room is usually a bed, desk, chair and dresser, trending design topics on dorm blogs include wall decals, felt pillows, monogrammed dry-erase boards and tiki bars. Some students, maybe weaned on a diet of the HGTV cable network, have faux-fur throws and paisley bean bag chairs on the brain.

“For the past 10 years, students have wanted their rooms to look like they came right out of the pages of a design catalogue,” says Maggie Burkhart Evans, James Madison University’s director of residence life. “They have shown up with lounge chairs and futons and crammed them into their rooms.”


Green and black ottomans from Dormify. (Dormify/DORMIFY)

But, Evans says, word is getting out that colleges can’t provide storage space for unwanted furniture: What’s in the room stays in the room.

Students are best served sticking to accessories that personalize or organize, such as pillows, bins, lamps or storage ottomans. They can use social media to plan shopping. At Target’s Ustyler, students can design their own virtual dorm room online and then share it with roommates through Facebook, Twitter, blogs and Pinterest. Twitter feeds such as @GW_Housing are great sources of insider information: Will I need a wool blanket before Thanksgiving? Should I bring a rug? What condition do I have to leave my dorm room in at the end of the year?

“I recommend that students get online and follow their housing office’s Facebook page or Twitter feed. They are often putting out ideas and tips and information and students are posting them as well,” says Evans. On the JMU Pinterest dorm board, there are real-life DIY solutions you won’t find in a catalogue, such as wall-mounted jewelry storage, flip-flop hangers and tie organizers.

Interestingly enough, overbuying at warehouse and big-box stores continues to be a problem for freshmen, who arrive with cases of laundry detergent and stacks of bottled water.

“At home you don’t buy enough shampoo for a year,” says Seth Weinshel, George Washington University’s director of housing, so “don’t do it for college.” He says some students try to get everything in advance when parents are still footing the bill.

“Resist the urge to stock up for the whole semester,” Evans says. “Just bring what you need for the first month and reassess.”


Four striped canvas storage bins from The Container Store. (The Container Store/THE CONTAINER STORE)

Reader Poll: What was the best investment you made when setting up your first dorm room?

Chat Thursday at 11 a.m. Kelly Vrtis, a college organizing expert from the Container Store, joins staff writer Jura Koncius for our weekly online Q&A. Submit questions here.

The home and design coverage of Jura Koncius has taken her inside hundreds of homes, from tiny studios in Penn Quarter to country castles in Warrenton. Jura also hosts the Home Front live chat, Thursdays at 11 a.m. ET.
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