Most dorm residents at Southeast Missouri State University will show up this fall with bedding, a laptop, a backpack and other typical accessories. A few dozen others will tote something furrier - and breathing: Their pets.
The school in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, announced last week it is creating pet-friendly floors in one residence hall, where students will be allowed to bunk with roommates of the feline, petite canine or "small caged animal" variety. The decision came in response to rising requests from prospective students - and their parents - for such a perk, according to university officials, who hope it will help smooth some newcomers' transition from home to higher education.
With this move, Southeast joins a small but growing group of colleges that offer housing to students and their critters. They include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has allowed cats in some dorms since 2000; Pfeiffer University in North Carolina; the University of Northern Colorado; Eckerd College in Florida; and Stephens College, a women's school in Columbia, Missouri, with a website that boasts, "Here, we treat pets like royalty."
College officials say students today retain closer ties to home than those of previous generations, in part because of social media. That can make the move tougher, and permitting pets is one way "to make sure we're integrating students best into the learning environment," said Debbie Below, Southeast's vice president for enrollment management and student success.
The school, located near the banks of the Mississippi River, will make space for about 70 pets in one of its 21 residence halls, Below said. They will be distinct from the 25 or so service and emotional support animals that, as required by federal housing and disability laws, already live in various dorm buildings. The university's experience with those animals made officials feel confident they could lay out a more general pet welcome mat, Below said.
Officials also hope the new pet-friendly floors might attract some of the students with service or emotional support animals, which Below said occasionally present challenges in regular dorms. "You could have somebody on that floor who's afraid of animals or has a serious allergy, and you're going to end up moving somebody," she said. "We're hoping that this is one solution."
Pet-friendly housing rules tend to be fairly similar from college to college, and they are designed to prevent problems caused by animals in shared spaces. At Southeast Missouri, which has about 11,500 students, critters will have to be family pets that are quiet, housebroken and get a roommate's sign-off. They will not be allowed in dorm bathrooms, and to protect residents with pet allergies, owners may not use laundry facilities to wash pet bedding or toys. (The University of Northern Colorado, on the other hand, dealt with this issue by designating washing machines and dryers for that specific purpose.)
Below emphasized that Southeast Missouri's pet-friendly floors will be a pilot program and adjustments to the policy are likely. At least one school that has tested such a program, Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee, decided to abandon it after two years.
At the other end of the spectrum is Eckerd, a liberal arts college in St. Petersburg, that has permitted dorm pets since the 1972-73 school year. James Annarelli, vice president for student life and dean of students, said records do not reflect how the policy came about, but he suspects it was driven by student demand. "This is not a top-down place," he said.
These days, Eckerd has under 1,900 students, but it has 229 registered pets on campus. Of those, 132 are dogs or cats, and the remainder represent an exotic array of species, spokeswoman Robbyn Hopewell said.
"We have some spiders," Hopewell noted as she read from a spreadsheet of campus animals. "It looks like our most popular lizard is a bearded dragon; there are five of those. Ferrets, fish, gerbils, frogs, guinea pigs, hamsters, hedgehogs, rabbits, rats, unspecified reptiles. We've got 23 snakes, one sugar glider and seven tortoises or turtles."
There once was a pair of ducks that lived with a pair of roommates. "The ducks actually graduated two years ago," Hopewell said. (Their humans did, too.)
Twice a year, a veterinarian visits the Eckerd campus to provide checkups. Once a year, a pastor comes to the school, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian church, to bless pets in honor of Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. Each spring, Eckerd holds a commencement ceremony just for the animals.
Even students who have no intention of keeping a pet of their own cite the school's pro-pet posture as a draw, Annarelli said.
"It is, for them, a sign of the kind of welcoming community this is," he said.