|The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges & the Renewal of University Life ‹collegiateway.org›|
“Making the Most of College”
A Message for Parents and Students from the Collegiate Way WebsiteRobert J. O’Hara (firstname.lastname@example.org)
We are especially thankful that our daughter is a part of a campus community where people look after each other.
Welcome to the Collegiate Way website. I’m glad you found your way here and I’m grateful for your interest. I am an academic biologist and college teacher by training, and the purpose of this website is to encourage large universities to improve the quality of campus life by creating small, diverse, faculty-led communities within themselves. These small communities, commonly called residential colleges or houses (as they are in Harry Potter), offer the advantages of a liberal arts college—small size and personal attention—in the context of a large university with broad course offerings and extensive facilities. I have spent many years living and working in residential college settings as a graduate student and a faculty member, and I have also had the contrasting experience of being an undergraduate in a big university without residential colleges. I am convinced that small residential colleges within a large university provide the best educational environment for students and faculty alike.
Most of the pages here on the Collegiate Way website have been written for university faculty and administrators who work in residential colleges or who are considering adopting the collegiate model at their own institutions. Although I haven’t been writing with parents and prospective students specifically in mind, I think you will find many things here that will help you in your college search. And if you are an alumnus or a citizen who is concerned in general with the quality of higher education, I hope you will share the ideas on this website with friends and family, local university officials, and the public legislators and granting agencies who support higher education.
Are you a high school student trying to choose a college, or the parent of a high school student? Then pay a visit to my directory of residential colleges at universities around the world. That directory will point you to the websites of individual residential colleges and collegiate universities, and you may discover some hidden possibilities there that you hadn’t yet considered in your college admission search. It isn’t surprising that you will find many of the most selective institutions in the world listed there, but it may indeed surprise you to find that residential colleges also exist in many less-expensive public universities and in many different countries around the world. If you’d like to know more about any of the colleges and universities listed in the directory, please contact them directly at the addresses they provide on their own websites.
Questions to Ask on Campus Visits
Are you planning a campus visit some time soon? If so, here are some questions you might want to ask your tour guides and the university officials you speak to:
“How many faculty live on campus?” The number of faculty living on campus is a good sign of an institution’s commitment to creating a comprehensive educational environment. And the question is not how many staff members or “student life professionals” live on campus, but how many faculty: professors, lecturers, deans, and so on, who not only participate in residential life but who also teach biology, or philosophy, or mathematics, or art, or some other academic discipline. Are there faculty offices in the dormitories? If so, that is also a good sign.
“Does the university have ‘theme halls’?” Theme halls are dormitories or dormitory corridors that group together students who have a common interest or background. Although at first glance this might seem like a good idea, theme halls are really not in students’ best educational interest. If all the art students live together, or all the science students, or all the athletes, how will any of them be able to learn and grow intellectually from exposure to the full range of talents and interests that other students have? If the university you are visiting has theme halls you might ask instead, “Why does the university segregate students in this way instead of integrating them so they can benefit from living in a diverse environment?”
“How many juniors and seniors live on campus?” How many graduate students? Are they segregated from the other students, or is everyone mixed together? If the campus dormitories are populated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores, that is a bad sign. It means either that the conditions are so poor that older students don’t want to stay, or that the university is only concerned with rental occupancy and is not trying to create a rich and diverse educational environment.
“Do faculty eat in the campus dining halls?” If you visit a dining hall, look around and see if there are university faculty and staff eating there as well as students. Is the dining hall a noisy student ghetto with a widescreen television blaring away, or is it a relaxing, home-like place where people can talk and get to know each other?
“How are the dormitories used during the summer?” Many universities rent their dormitory space during the summer to make money, and in itself this is not objectionable. But who are the tenants? If the space is rented to academic societies, professional organizations, local charities, and the like, that is a good sign. If it is rented to summer sports camps, that may be a bad sign. Years of personal observation have taught me that summer sports camps are often badly supervised and commit extensive vandalism. Their presence may mean that campus buildings are so poorly maintained that more responsible groups don’t want to stay in them. Do you want your son or daughter’s campus home to be routinely vandalized over the summer?
As you tour campus dormitories, look for signs of social stability. Are the walls and offices decorated with student artwork from years past, or is the place more like a sterile hotel lobby? Is there a big television in every lounge and common room? There certainly should be one in the building, but there should also be quiet and comfortable places for people to sit, read, talk, nap, and make plans for conquering the world in the absence of perpetual distraction. Are there magazines and newspapers and green plants in evidence? Little things like this make the difference between a real campus home and a student warehouse.
Talk to campus police, security guards, and housekeepers if you can. If they are proud of the place, that’s a good sign. And though the buildings and grounds will always be cleaned up for your visit, as they should be, if you really want to get dirty take a minute to go around the back of the building and check to see whether the dumpster is full of beer cans. If it is, count that as a bad sign.
If you’d like to learn more about residential colleges and the advantages they offer, I invite you to browse through the other pages on this website. You might review the four foundations for higher education renewal or my vision of the collegiate landscape of the future, or browse the directory of residential colleges around the world or the page of recommended readings. Recent news about residential colleges is available on the Collegiate Way news page. An excellent book that I especially recommend to parents and prospective college students is Richard Light’s Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds (Harvard University Press, 2001), from which I have taken the title of this page. Light’s work documents the overwhelming importance of student-faculty contact and individual attention, just the sort of thing that residential colleges provide so well, and he offers many practical suggestions for getting the most from your education no matter where you go to school. I wish you much success in your college search.
© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014