In barely a month, a new generation of college freshmen will head to Bed Bath & Beyond to search for mini-fridges and bed-risers, and participate in the time-honored ritual of wondering why they need to buy such long sheets for such long beds. It’s an under-appreciated rite of passage, for sure, but a rite of passage nonetheless. As childhood ends, so do the days of sleeping on a reasonably sized mattress. Until you move off-campus, at least.
But why is the standard college dorm mattress so long? Okay, sure, maybe they seem larger than they are (twin XL beds extend 80 inches, a few hairs longer than a twin bed’s 75 inches, and both are 39 inches wide). But those extra five inches mean every freshman from Rutgers to Cal State must invest in new sheets, blankets and mattress pads (seriously — get the mattress pad). And the average height for an adult man in America is 69.3 inches; for a woman, 63.8 inches. What gives?
The answer may be just as Occam foretold: Tall beds are simply the most elegant solution to a thorny logistical problem.
Seattle-based writer/editor Kevin Schofeld is a trustee at Harvey Mudd College. Formerly a Chief Operations Officer at Microsoft Research, he’s no stranger to complex systems — be they patent bureaucracies or university housing orders. Asked why twin XL seem to be the campus standard nationwide, he said it just makes sense for colleges to go with a one-size-sleeps-all philosophy.
“Colleges buy beds in large quantities, and the logistics of managing them can be significant,” Schofield said in an email. “I’ve dealt with it as a trustee when we’ve ordered beds for a new dorm that’s just opening, but beyond that beds wear out and get damaged or soiled beyond repair so in any given year a college also replaces a certain percentage of its inventory of beds across all the residences.”
With bed-size standardized, replacing this inventory is easier than logging onto campus WiFi. “If you need to replace a mattress or frame, you just grab one — any one — out of the store room or out of a nearby vacant dorm room,” Schofield said. “You don’t have to keep track of inventory for multiple sizes, you don’t need to track how many of each size you have in use (and where they all are), and re-ordering is a snap.” Using the well-known standard dimensions, a college can also factor bed size into the way it designs dorm rooms.
Of course, this logic applies to frames and mattresses of any size. Why, then, do they go long? Some students, Schofield noted, will inevitably be taller than others.
“I have never heard of a case where someone has asked for a shorter bed, but there are certainly students who need extra-long ones,” he said. “The difference in cost between the two is small when ordering in large quantities, and it’s almost certainly smaller than the cost of the added logistics if you didn’t standardize. So it makes enormous sense — logistically and fiscally — to standardize on extra-long beds.”
While we haven’t conducted a nationwide survey on college mattresses (yet), Schofield’s response does seem to hold true for more institutions than just Harvey Mudd. Barbara Lea-Kruger, a spokesperson for the University of Pennsylvania, told Van Winkle’s that the additional length simply accomodates taller students. “Choosing to use and buying all one bed size for traditional undergrads makes it easy to replace broken beds, install new ones, and purchase new mattresses for existing twin XL bed frames,” she said.
Lea-Kruger added that larger beds may be a life-changer for students who grew up with a standard twin-sized mattress. “Over the years, we've had several parents contact us for information about where to buy their own XL beds for their kids after they move out of our housing especially if their child is really tall,” she said. “After getting used to not having their feet hang off the end of the mattress, it is hard to go back to a regular-length bed.”
Schofield said he has “no idea” how long twin XL has been the status quo in American dorms, or why the practice originally started. Annie Selkie, a home goods designer and supplier, wrote in a blog post that the trend rose with the popularity of college athletics: Since athletes required longer beds, everyone else got them as well. This origin story is echoed by Residence Hall Linens, another bedding supplier, though both claims are unsourced and, well, fishy, if only because people were tall before college sports enjoyed their current cultural primacy. (Note: Annie Selkie did not respond to a request for comment; RHL’s only public contact is a customer service center.)
Perhaps colleges originally used twin XL beds to accommodate their athletes. Perhaps it was simply a best practice that gradually overtook postsecondary institutions across the nation. This truth, like so many, may never be knowable, but there is one thing we can say for sure: Tall people really do have it all.