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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges, collegiate houses, and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. For more about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

The Burlington Free Press Reports on Campus Life

The Burlington (Vermont) Free Press carries a long story today by reporter Tim Johnson on trends in campus housing, with emphasis on what’s happening in the Green Mountain State. He takes note of the Collegiate Way website and my criticisms of the “theme hall” idea. The full text of the story appears below.

Not your dad’s dorm

Published: Friday, August 31, 2007

The dormitory is becoming passe. In college promotional materials the word is often missing, and on some campuses—according to college administrators—so is the reality.

To hear administrators talk, students housed on campus no longer live in dorms. They live in “residence halls,” or in “residential complexes,” or in “special-interest housing,” or—as the University of Vermont likes to put it—in “residential learning communities.” These are places where a student doesn’t just sleep but is expected to learn something, too.

To be sure, there are still residential buildings on campus where you share a bathroom at the end of the hall and where your roommate is someone randomly assigned with whom you have little in common except gender. Many other options beckon today’s college student, however.

You want to live together with other students who are into Japanese, or animals, or engineering? You want to share quarters with others who are passionate environmentalists or social activists? You want to live in a community that has live-in faculty and its own classroom space and its own activities and esprit-de-corps?

Not all colleges have such options, although some have these and many more. If your college does, you might have to apply to get into the residence you prefer. That’s right—as if applying to college weren’t a big enough ordeal, now you have to apply to get into the themed residence hall of your choice.

Karen Klinger, UVM Class of 2008, was invited to join the UVM Honors College—a selective residence for academic achievers—as an entering first-year student. She knew she wanted to be there, and if she hadn’t been asked to join the Honors College, she might have gone elsewhere—perhaps the University of Wisconsin.

Klinger, who said she attended “an academic high school” in Montgomery, Ala., has been in the Honors College ever since. She likes the perks—special library privileges, early registration for classes—and she calls the accommodations in the new University Heights North complex “amazing.” The building has a game room; suites have their own bathrooms. Honors College freshmen take an ethics course; two faculty members live under the same roof.

Next door, in University Heights South, much of the complex is given over to GreenHouse, for environmental enthusiasts.

Katie White, a sophomore, said she applied “so I could meet people with similar interests, people who enjoy being outside, protecting the environment.”

Promotional lures

As colleges around the country vie to attract students, residential options like these often are used as “recruiting tools,” said Aaron Brower, a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin who has participated in a national study of “living-learning programs.”

Some schools try to distinguish themselves through their housing options, he said. “Why go to UVM or the University of New Hampshire?” Brower asked. One reason could be the appeal of various residential programs—themed floors in residence halls, for example.

UVM isn’t alone in this. Champlain College has four special-interest houses, focusing on civic engagement and cross-cultural appreciation, among other themes. Perhaps the most popular is the Wellness House, in which 42 students form a community committed to good health, broadly defined.

St. Michael’s College has substance-free, cross-cultural, and honors housing options. Middlebury College has an array of special-interest houses—including one for each of the nine languages taught on campus—as well as five “commons,” each with 450-500 students and resident faculty, akin to the “residential colleges” that are the primary living units at Harvard and Yale.

Nationally, Brower said, “regular dorms are far and away the most popular option.” Other alternatives have proliferated in the past 20 years or so, however, accommodating 15 percent to 30 percent of college students. (At UVM, it’s about 26 percent, with 74 percent of the on-campus residents living in conventional, nonprogrammed housing.) Even “regular dorms” aren’t necessarily what they used to be—they’re likely to have lounges where talks or social events take place, and the rooms are likely to have Internet connections.

Two of the more prominent national collegiate housing trends are somewhat contrary to each other, but they’re in play side by side on some campuses, nevertheless:

“Residential colleges” take a cross-section of students and integrate their academic and living environments, with live-in faculty.

By contrast, “special-interest or themed housing” creates niche residences for interest groups, or for groups with common interests. UVM has dozens of programs that group students together, from language learners and performing artists to LGBTQA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and their allies) undergraduates, and those who want to keep kosher, and those who like to play music, and those who like to hike and climb.

Integration, segregation

Not everyone sees special-interest housing as a wonderful thing.

In Williamstown, Mass., Williams College doesn’t have it and has resisted it for years, having abolished fraternities in the 1960s. Students are randomly assigned to heterogeneous residential groups, said Jim Kolesar, assistant to the president for public affairs.

“A lot of education goes on outside the classroom,” Kolesar said. “In our setting, we maximize that by not having themed housing. We go pretty far out of our way to integrate as much as possible…. We don’t even have substance-free housing.”

Residential colleges, inspired partly by the traditional setups of Oxford and Cambridge universities in England, resist differentiation, too. About 30 colleges and universities in the United States have them, often in addition to other kinds of housing.

This model brings a diversity of students, and a wide range of faculty, into one residential setting, where professors conduct classes and preside over an academic community. Among the ardent proponents of this model is Robert J. O’Hara, who maintains a Web site (http://collegiateway.org) devoted to his advocacy.

“I don’t support the idea of theme halls,” O’Hara wrote in an e-mail. “I think universities should be in the business of integration, not segregation. Students need to have the opportunity to learn from people with diverse interests, and living with lots of other people who think just like they do deprives them of this opportunity.”

One goal that residential colleges and programmed living units share, however, is to bring together two aspects of the students’ life that were disparate for years at many colleges: academic life and residential life.

UVM started up its Living and Learning Center in 1973, ahead of the “living-learning” wave that caught on at many colleges in the ’90s. UVM’s version is a complex of five connected buildings, with workshops, classrooms and common areas, where students of common interests can share modules or groups of rooms.

The themes have evolved over the years, said director John Sama, and they depend heavily on the strength of student interest. Tae kwon do and emergency-medicine units have disappeared, for example, while units connected with the “Global Village”—Africa House, Casa Italiana, or the Global Issues unit, for example—seem to be on the upswing.

The overall rationale, Sama said, is to “make productive use of students’ time when they’re outside the classroom, to break down the barriers between the classroom and the residence.”

Student reviews

As a sophomore at Middlebury, Dan Kane spent last year in Weybridge House, living with 17 other students. Weybridge, an “environmental interest house,” hosts “screenings and discussions on environmental topics and functions in some way as an educational center for other students,” Kane wrote in an e-mail.

“Living in Weybridge you get a sense of community and shared purpose around the same issues,” Kane wrote. “People often make the comment that Weybridge doesn’t even feel like it’s on campus. We cook our own food, as well—mostly organic and local.”

Liz Coletti and Amanda Machamer, first-year students at UVM, plan to major in engineering. Both applied, and were accepted, to live in the engineering and math unit in the Living and Learning complex, where they share quarters with upperclassmen. They seemed happy with their choice and with what Coletti called “automatic advice” from their more seasoned suite-mates.

Over at the Honors College, sophomore Khiray Bautista sat playing a piano on the ground floor. He lived there as a first-year student, and said he liked it because it was quiet and conveniently located. Then he mentioned another feature of University Heights that other students also mentioned: “private bathrooms—that’s why people want to live here.” Bathrooms are shared by suite-mates, rather than a whole floor. “It’s like a hotel,” Coletti said of the University Heights complex.

“Everybody wants to live here,” Bautista said, as he fingered the keyboard. “They’re all jealous.”

Mark Noble, a junior who lives in Marsh-Austin-Tupper—one of the conventional residences—sounded content with where he is, however. “It’s cheaper to live here,” he said.

UVM has different room prices, based largely on the degree of privacy. A “private double” in University Heights costs $6,616 a year. In Marsh-Austin-Tupper, a “traditional double” costs $5,426. UVM provides “offsets” to students in residential learning communities who can’t afford the higher price.

“The rooms might be nicer over there,” Noble said of University Heights, as he paused before entering his own building, “but it’s still just a dorm room.”

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