The university's first dorm was its first building. When Hinton James arrived on campus in 1795, Old East was the only building on campus. It was not long before the number of students outgrew the available space, even with six people in each room. Many of the earliest buildings have housed students at some point in their history, including South Building, Old West, New East, and New West. With the rapid growth of the university in the early twentieth century, there was a significant increase in the construction of dormitories. Vance, Battle, and Pettigrew Halls were completed in 1912 to house students. An additional ten residence halls were built in the 1920s, including Spencer Residence Hall, the first dorm built to house women students. The university continued to use land on the east side of campus for student housing through the 1940s. The post—World War II boom in enrollment saw the most serious housing crisis yet. With thousands of veterans returning to school, the dorms were filled to capacity and the university installed twenty-six Quonset huts as temporary housing. Even with the extra space, a few students were relegated to trailers and even tents on campus.

In the 1950s the university began to look toward South Campus as a growth area for student housing. In 1958 Avery, Parker, and Teague dorms were completed near Kenan Stadium. The most significant change in student housing came a few years later, in 1962, when the high-rise Ehringhaus and Craige dorms opened. The six-floor dorms were followed in 1965 and 1967 by Morrison and Hinton James dorms, both ten stories tall. Located far from north campus, the high-rises were an attempt to make the most economical and efficient use of the dwindling land available to the university. The push to build even bigger and higher dorms did not last long. There was discussion of building a twenty-one-story dorm on campus, but it was canceled. When the university built new dorms in early 2002, they were smaller and designed to bring more of a traditional campus feel to South Campus.