The Residential College System

While I’m a big fan of smaller colleges, many of my students want to attend large universities. It’s not hard to understand why students who have spent their high school years in classes with many of the same people would want their college experience to provide lots of social as well as academic choices. Big schools are more likely to offer Division I sports that appeal to students who can’t wait to cheer their team to victory at football games. There’s an energy on a big campus that can be very exciting.

The downside is that it’s easy to get lost in a huge university. With large classes, you have less contact with professors. Walking across campus every day, you see thousands of people you don’t know. You may not get the advising you need, especially if you’re unclear about academic or career goals. Without family around to provide a nurturing environment, students at large schools can feel disconnected and alienated.

That’s one of the reasons for the growth in residential colleges. The residential college system started in England, at Oxford and Cambridge. Harvard and Yale imported the concept, creating their own residential colleges in the 1930s. The idea is becoming increasingly popular at both public and private schools, as a way to enhance the educational experience.

The traditional residential college is designed to be a microcosm of the university. Several hundred students of all ages live in a community with faculty and university staff who provide programming to promote intellectual and social growth, including lectures, parties and field trips. Sometimes a professor’s family lives in the college, creating a home-like environment, where students enjoy playing with children and dogs. The family atmosphere prevents social isolation and may reduce substance abuse.

In the British and Ivy League models, all students are assigned to residential colleges, where they often live for four years. Other schools offer the option of a residential college to some students. The University of Michigan’s Residential College is a great choice for students who enjoy interdisciplinary, active learning. Michigan is a huge school, and the Residential College provides a smaller community where students live together and take some seminar classes while still being able to take advantage of all the courses and activities of the entire university.

Many schools offer programs with some of the advantages of residential colleges, such as living-learning communities organized around a theme. Students who share an interest in community service, environmental awareness, the arts, technology and society, or women in science participate in activities that support their interests.

UC San Diego and UC Santa Cruz assign all undergraduates to themed colleges that have their own general education requirements. USC offers residential colleges with live-in faculty as well as themed housing for students interested in living with people who share an interest in social action, arts and culture, international awareness or sustainability. Students at all of these schools generally move off campus by junior year, so they don’t have the kind of intense long-term involvement that characterizes the British and Ivy League models.

While the advantages of residential colleges are clear at big universities, some smaller schools, like Middlebury College, also have living-learning communities that foster close relationships among students, faculty and staff. At Middlebury, students live in one of five Commons, where deans and professors provide activities including lectures, outings, and social gatherings as well as academic and personal advising.

For students who value a sense of community, choosing a school that offers a traditional residential college or themed living-learning program may be an important step in creating a satisfying undergraduate experience.

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