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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.

House Systems as Mutual Aid Societies

[] — One of the most compelling columns at Inside Higher Ed is Wick Sloane’s regular series of reports on community colleges. In today’s installment he writes movingly about the personal and financial obstacles many of his students struggle with as they seek to complete their studies. “My 10 mo. old daughter is very sick,” one student wrote, “and I have been at the hospital since last night. She will get monitored all day today to track her progress. I will email some assignments later today.” Another student was denied federal financial aid because he couldn’t produce the proper income tax form. He couldn’t produce the proper income tax form because he had no income.

Does the residential college model advocated here at the Collegiate Way have anything to offer community colleges in general and students in difficult circumstances in particular? Yes, it has a lot to offer.

Most community colleges are not residential, of course, but the key element of the residential college idea is the college part, not the residential part. A college in the Collegiate Way’s sense is not a building, nor is it a curricular unit; it is a small, permanent, cross-sectional, membership society. In a community college or a secondary school (or a university, for that matter) we can call these societies houses rather than colleges if that makes the concept clearer—the terms are interchangeable. The four foundational ideas behind the collegiate model do not depend upon residence at all; indeed, the academic advising system in a non-residential institution can be the framework on which a complete house system can be built.

One of the most important things that house systems and residential college systems do for their members is surround them with an established web of relationships. Teachers and students, seniors and freshmen, natives and immigrants, artists and scientists, spouses and singles, parents and children—all these are brought together into one great household. Unlike segregated theme halls which put like with like, cross-sectional house systems integrate people with varied backgrounds and interests into close-knit, diverse societies.

But how does this help struggling students? In my experience, one of the most wonderful emergent properties of a house system is the rich network of mutual aid that develops automatically. Need a babysitter? Several are available at no charge. Don’t understand what Professor X is looking for in the current assignment? The person standing next to you at tea took that course last year and can offer advice. Lost your keys down the elevator shaft? An engineering team will materialize to fish them out. Applying to transfer to another school? The master knows a former member of the house who transferred to that school just last year—give her a call. Searching for an apartment? One of your fellow house members just got one and is looking for more people to join him.

These things happen because over time in a collegiate house, people get to know one another and become friends. It’s as simple as that. Groups possessing the kind of social cohesion that is found within a house system or a residential college system can accomplish far more than isolated individuals or ephemeral collections of isolated individuals.

“But there’s no time and no money to do this sort of thing,” critics will say. Well, not a lot of time and money is needed, and one of the principal virtues of a house system is that it creates permanent, enduring societies that develop regular patterns of life year after year, requiring less management effort as time goes on, in contrast to short-term or one-off programs that have to be regularly restarted from scratch.

A house system in a community college could be administratively very light weight, and it could be rooted in the existing academic advising system. And it could rest on top of any existing special curricular programs, such as first-year seminars, without disturbing them in any way.

Specifics? Make each house a cross-sectional membership unit of, say, 200, with membership determined randomly upon admission to the college and continuing for the entire period a student is enrolled. (Students returning to the college after an absence should be placed back in their original houses.) Give each house a distinguished name (“Wick Sloane House”) and devise for it appropriate signs and symbols. Allot roughly two faculty course-equivalents per 200 students to support a faculty house master in addition to an advising dean; set up a very minimal calendar consisting of tea once a week and perhaps an additional fellows’ lunch gathering; create a house blog or webpage; provide a little xerox money to produce a printed facebook; get a storage cabinet to keep house treasures in; and supply $25/week for food. Don’t over-plan. Just bring people together at the same time in the same place every week for tea and conversation, week after week, month after month. Float a new idea every now and then, and watch the magic emerge.

Social isolation can be one of the most debilitating features of poverty. And social isolation is often self-perpetuating, causing people to become trapped in a “surround of force” from which it is very difficult to escape. By involving students in a web of enduring house relationships we strengthen them and the college as a whole at the same time.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021