The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges & the Renewal of University Life  ‹›


Publication note: This is a web version of a paper that originally appeared in print in both English and Chinese. The English-language text is reproduced below; the Chinese text and the illustrations are omitted from this web version. Editorial insertions in this version are enclosed in {braces}. Citations to this paper should refer to the bilingual printed edition:

O’Hara, Robert J. 2011.
American higher education and the “collegiate way of living.” (美国高等教育和 “学院制生活.”) Community Design (Tsinghua University), 30(2): 10–21.

A pdf version of this paper, suitable for printing and including the illustrations and the Chinese text, is available on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN #2561916).

American Higher Education and the “Collegiate Way of Living” (美国高等教育和 “学院制生活”)

Abstract: Institutions of higher education in the United States are remarkably diverse in their educational purposes, their organizational structure, and their architectural styles. But underlying all this diversity are two distinct historical models: the decentralized British “collegiate” model of university education, and the centralized Germanic university model. Early American higher education grew out of the British collegiate tradition and emphasized the comprehensive development of students’ intellect and character, while the Germanic university tradition, introduced in the late 1800s, shifted the focus to technical scholarship and research. The Germanic university model held sway for much of the twentieth century, but there is now a widespread renewal of interest in the older decentralized British collegiate model, and in universities across the United States and around the world, small “residential colleges” like those at Oxford and Cambridge are now being planned and built. These residential colleges or “houses” (as they are sometimes called) provide small, stable, faculty-led, home-like environments for a few hundred students each, and their social and architectural design seeks to counteract the impersonal bureaucratic experience that {page 11} students often have in large Germanic-style universities. This revival of the collegiate model of university organization is one of the most important trends in the design of educational communities in the world today.

Keywords: residential colleges, house systems, residence life, dormitories, decentralization, higher education, student housing

{Pages 11–17 comprise the Chinese-language version of the essay. The full English text, below, begins on page 17.}

1. Higher Education in the United States

To an outside observer, the most distinctive feature of American higher education is its organizational diversity. In every region of the country one can find a wide range of universities that are public and private, large and small, selective and non-selective, religious and secular, research-oriented and teaching-oriented, urban and rural, wealthy and less wealthy, career-focused and focused on general education. This organizational diversity is mirrored in the diversity of architectural styles, elements, and configurations that can be found on American campuses. From Georgian brick in the 1700s, to Neoclassical marble and Romanesque sandstone in the 1800s, to Gothic granite in the early 1900s, to Modernist concrete and steel in the late 1900s, the architectural variation that can be seen on many large American campuses makes each university a living museum of educational design.

As confusing as all this organizational diversity can be to an outside observer, or to a young person trying to decide which university to attend, there are in fact two broad historical models that underlie nearly all of the variation. If we wish to understand some of the most important trends in university planning and community design today—in particular, the trend {page 18} to establish “residential colleges” on large campuses—we must first understand what these two traditional models are and how they differ.

The two traditions are the British “collegiate” model of higher education, and the Germanic or Continental-European university model of higher education. These two historical models represent very different conceptions of how educational communities should be organized, and over the last two hundred years their relative influence in the United States has waxed and waned.

a. The British ‘Collegiate’ Model of Higher Education

The great universities of Oxford and Cambridge in England are the prototypes of the British “collegiate” model of higher education. Although Oxford and Cambridge are both large institutions, every student belongs to a small residential college of only a few hundred members within the university, a residential college that serves as a campus home. From Peterhouse and King’s College at Cambridge, to Balliol College and Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford, the sixty “Oxbridge” residential colleges are not merely dormitories—sleeping places—but are instead independent households furnished with their own dining rooms, recreational spaces, small libraries, and gardens. The educational philosophy that governs them is the idea that students learn and grow, both personally and intellectually, from being immersed in community life. And the architecture of those colleges, whatever its style, is intended to support that governing philosophy.

Early American higher education was based on this British educational philosophy, and it emphasized not only academic training, but also the moral development of students and the development of character and individuality. This educational philosophy dictated that students should not merely attend lectures given by scholars, but that each institution should also provide housing and common dining facilities for its students and its teachers, and that students and teachers should live and dine together regularly in an almost family-like environment. “Book-learning alone might be got by lectures and reading,” observed the educational historian Samuel Eliot Morison, “but it was only by studying and disputing, eating and drinking, playing and praying as members of the same collegiate community, in close and constant association with each other and with their tutors, that the priceless gift of character could be imparted to young men.”

In the spacious early-American countryside, the British model of higher education gave rise to the long and distinguished tradition of small and often rural “liberal arts colleges” in the United States. These institutions have provided broad educational offerings to undergraduates for generations, and their residential campuses, which usually provide housing for all students, are often among the most beautiful in the country. From Amherst College in the East, to Oberlin College in the Midwest, to Pomona College on the Pacific coast, these small and independent campuses see it as their purpose not to produce workers, but citizens; not to train students to make a living, but to make a worthwhile life. They continue to reflect today, in their educational programs and their campus architecture, the British collegiate philosophy that guided American higher education for its first two hundred years: the philosophy that says learning and growth take place most effectively in a small community setting.

b. The Germanic ‘University’ Model and the First Collegiate Revival

In the early and mid-1800s, however, a second and very different organizational model of higher education began to gain a foothold in the United States, and along with it came a different view of campus architecture and campus housing in particular. This was the Germanic or Continental-European university model, and it took as its exemplar not the old collegiate universities of Oxford and Cambridge in Great Britain, but the then-new University of Berlin in Germany.

Advocates of the Germanic model, concerned more with advanced research and graduate studies, and with scholarship both for its own sake and in the service of the state, tended to de-emphasize undergraduate education and saw little value in student housing. They were content to let students find lodging wherever they could around the town, and they in no way conceived of community living itself as an important component of higher education.

The Germanic university model rose in popularity all through the 1800s, and its influence was responsible for the growth of many of the great public (state-sponsored) universities in the United States: the University of Michigan, the University of Texas, the University of California, and many others. Sprawling campuses with large libraries, science laboratories, lecture halls, and office buildings became the architectural focus, so much so that the University of Michigan’s president in the mid-1800s tried to eliminate dormitories entirely.

But by the late 1800s and early 1900s it was becoming clear that, for all its success in research and scholarship, the Germanic university model lacked an important element that the older small colleges possessed: a sense of community, and a concern for the personal development of each student as an individual. The Germanic-style professor, complained Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University in 1909, did not see himself “as related in any responsible way to the life of his pupils, to what they should be doing and thinking of between one class exercise and another, and conceived his whole duty to have been performed when he had given his lecture.”

A number of prominent educational leaders of this period, including Frank Bolles and Abbott Lawrence Lowell at Harvard University and Robert Gordon Sproul at the University of California, were sympathetic to Wilson’s complaint, and they began to look again at the British collegiate model to see how it could be adapted to, or recreated within, the large modern university. “One of the problems of such an institution as the University of California,” wrote Sproul in 1930, is to find a way to organize the campus so that “the advantages of the small group may be retained without sacrificing the even greater advantages of membership in a large university.” Sproul’s solution was Bowles Hall, a magnificent campus residence that was conceived not simply as a sleeping place—a dormitory—but as a residential community of scholars with its own dining room and library, just like the earlier residential colleges of Oxford and Cambridge in Great Britain.

Bowles Hall was a pioneering single-building example, but the most complete reestablishment of the British collegiate model took place at Harvard and Yale universities in the 1930s, and at Rice University in the 1950s, where ambitious educational leaders reorganized the whole undergraduate population, and all the supporting architecture {page 19} as well, into collections of residential colleges or “houses”—again, very like the independent residential colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. These magnificent collections of buildings, many of them constructed in the Georgian and Gothic Revival styles, gave students small, decentralized, faculty-led homes within their respective universities, where they could benefit from close daily interaction with one another and with teachers and visiting scholars, and where they could have a multitude of opportunities to contribute their own talents to the community.

Despite the great success of the collegiate model at Harvard and Yale in the 1930s, the revival of this decentralized organizational pattern within other large American institutions was slow to catch on during the middle part of the twentieth century. The crisis of World War II put heavy research demands on universities, and government money flooded into science laboratories and graduate research programs. After the war many campuses grew enormously in size thanks to state-sponsored educational funding for returning veterans, and some university leaders began to think more like businessmen seeking expansion for its own sake, rather than like educators aiming to cultivate an environment of academic excellence. The low-quality student housing that was built of necessity on many campuses during these years, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, is among the worst you can find, in both design and materials, from any period.

But by the 1990s the negative consequences of rapid expansion, and the concomitant neglect of traditional small-college values, were being recognized again. An isolated undergraduate in a vast 3000-student dormitory at the University of Texas, for example, wrote that on campus she “did not feel the same sense of belonging and inclusion” that she had known all her life. “In my hometown I had a strong support system that included all ages of people from throughout the community,” but in her enormous and impersonal university this kind of personal attention and encouragement had vanished.

In response to concerns like these, and out of a genuine acknowledgment today that many of the organizational structures and architectural configurations that have sprouted up on big campuses since the 1960s have become bureaucratic and inhumane, a true revival of the British collegiate model is now underway, both in the United States and around the world. University faculty, students, planners, and architects, have once again been trying to address Robert Gordon Sproul’s question from 1930: How should we organize a large campus so as to preserve the advantages of the small group in the context of a large institution?

2. The Four Foundations of the Collegiate Model

Today’s educators and educational planners recognize that the answer to Sproul’s question has four parts, each part describing one of the four organizational foundations of a successful residential college system. These four organizational foundations in turn govern the choice of architectural elements and configurations that are needed to support a successful residential college community.

First, the life of a large campus should be decentralized into smaller units of about 400 members each. Students will continue to take classes and make use of the teaching and research facilities of the university as a whole, but between classes and at the end of the day they return to their small campus homes—their residential colleges—where they are known one-by-one as individual members. And the notion of membership in this context is vital. It is natural for architects, planners, and administrators to think in terms of rooms, beds, and rents, but the primary educational objective is to create small social groupings—small communities or societies—within the larger whole. This is what residential colleges are. When we begin with social groups of the right size, many architectural elements will be seen to follow along naturally and automatically.

Second, the leadership of these residential college units should be in the hands of the academic faculty, rather than in the hands of full-time administrative staff. Education at its best is always local and personal, and one of our design objectives should be to increase the amount of personal contact students and teachers have with one another outside of the formal classroom. Experienced teachers and scholars can always find ways to enrich the residential environment with informal educational opportunities that integrate classroom learning and daily life. Housing managers and administrative staff, however well meaning, rarely have the experience and academic background necessary to do this effectively.

Third, the residential college units that make up the university as a whole should be socially stable and permanent. In a university with a four-year course of study, for example, a residential college of 400 members will have an annual turnover of only 25%. (100 members graduating each year, and 100 new members arriving to take their place.) This kind of stability will allow a wide range of traditions to develop within the residential college, and a familiar and comfortable rhythm of life will permit students to take intellectual chances and stretch their abilities. The life of each year in a residential college should not replace the life of the year before, but should instead build upon it and enrich it.

Fourth, each residential college within the university should be an academic cross-section of the university as a whole. While it might be tempting to group students according to subject—all the science students in one building, for example, and all the business students in another—this is not the best educational arrangement. If students are to benefit from the great range of talents and interests that can be found on the campus as a whole, they must be immersed in that diversity on a daily basis. A good residential college should mix its students and teachers together so the engineer will learn from the poet, the biologist from the historian, the anthropologist from the physicist.

Given these four organizational principles, what are the essential architectural elements and configurations needed to support a successful residential college? I offer a detailed answer to that question on my website, “The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges and the Renewal of University Life” (, which I invite all interested readers to visit. In brief, the essential elements and configurations relate to the overall architectural structure of the college, the indoor common spaces, and the residential rooms for students and faculty.

In its overall architectural structure, a residential college within a larger university should always be low-rise (never more than four storeys tall), and its blocks or wings should focus on a small central lawn, garden, or courtyard that is seen as the geographical heart of the community, and through which everyone passes each day. The grounds should be enclosed within a low wall or hedge so there will be a distinct sense of being “in” the college when entering onto the grounds.

Well-designed indoor common spaces are also essential since the aim of a residential college is to cultivate community life in the service of education. {page 20} The most important common space is a large dining hall for all the members, one that can also serve as a concert hall for musical performances and a theater for plays and films. A large and simple rectangular hall, with good natural lighting, moveable furniture, and a slightly raised platform at one end has been the standard design for centuries, and it is a good one still today. Next in importance is a large common living room, traditionally called the “junior common room,” suitable for conversation, weekly social events, informal meetings, and general-purpose study and relaxation. A small library and study room is also important, as is an office suite near the entrance for the academic head of the college.

Finally, suitable residential spaces should be available not just for students, but also for two or three faculty members—the “master” or “president” of the college who oversees the whole community, and the “dean” who has special responsibility for student life. The individual student rooms should be designed in such a way as to encourage undergraduates to remain in residence during their whole course of study (three or four years in a typical degree program). One of the best ways to accomplish this is to have rooms that differ in size and quality, and to allow students to select their own rooms on the basis of seniority. All students will then come to understand that during the first year their room may not be the best, but if they remain they will have an opportunity—the same opportunity as everyone else—to advance to a better room of their choice.

3. The Second Collegiate Revival in America and Around the World

Where are these ideas being put into place today? As noted above, there is a genuine revival of the British collegiate model now underway, and the organizational principles and architectural elements just described are being implemented, in many different styles and to varying degrees of completeness, on a wide variety of American university campuses. In some cases existing residential college systems are being expanded; in other cases wholly new systems of residential colleges are being established; and in still other cases partial systems are being established that may be expanded in the future. For example:

Complete systems of residential colleges designed to accommodate the entire undergraduate population, like those created at Harvard and Yale in the 1930s, have been established in the last twenty years at several American universities:

Partial residential college systems, or initial plans for complete systems, are also being developed on many campuses:

The collegiate model has again become so highly regarded that half of the top twenty-five universities in the United States, as ranked by the popular U.S. News magazine, now either have, or are planning, complete or partial residential college systems.

And this residential college movement is by no means confined to the United States:

And of special interest to educators and architects in Asia, the residential college model is now being energetically pursued at the National University of Singapore, the University of Macau, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In the last five years at CUHK, five new residential colleges have been added to four already in place. These new residential colleges are intended, the university says, “to foster an intimate community where students and academic staff learn, share and grow intellectually; to provide an environment for congenial college life and learning for students; to provide pastoral care, whole-person education, and general education; and to broaden students’ perspectives through formal and non-formal education.”

4. The Collegiate Way of Living

The first institution of higher education in America was established in Massachusetts in 1636, in a small frontier settlement that was barely six years old. One observer thought that perhaps a few scholars could be hired to deliver lectures there, but given the poverty of the times it certainly wouldn’t be wise to try to establish a genuine residential college like those that existed in the great British universities on the other side of the Atlantic. But the leaders of the Massachusetts colony, the early writer Cotton Mather tells us, thought it was essential that their students be “brought up in a more Collegiate Way of living.” Book-learning alone, they knew, could be gotten from a library—and in our day it can be gotten from a library and the Internet. But book-learning alone does not make for a comprehensive education. It is only by living together in a small, permanent, home-like, academically diverse community that students can gain the full benefits of a university education, and can learn how best to contribute their own talents to the world around them.

Recommended Readings on Residential Colleges and Campus Architecture

Brooke, Christopher, & Roger Highfield. 1988. Oxford and Cambridge. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. (A beautifully illustrated volume on the history, buildings, and grounds of the two great collegiate universities of Britain.)

The Campus Guide series. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Architectural Press. (The many volumes in this excellent series describe and illustrate the architecture of a wide range of American campuses. The ones on Yale [1999], Harvard [2001], and Rice [2001] universities are especially valuable for their descriptions of the residential colleges.)

O’Hara, Robert J. 2000 to date. The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges and the Renewal of University Life ( (My comprehensive website is the international clearinghouse for residential college ideas, news, and information, both social and architectural.)

O’Hara, Robert J. 2001. How to build a residential college. Planning for Higher Education, 32(2): 52–57. (A brief outline of the social structure of a residential college community and how it can be assembled within a large university.)

Rudolph, Frederick. 1990. The American College and University: A History. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press. (A comprehensive and beautifully written history of higher education in the United States, covering both the British collegiate and the Germanic university traditions.)

Ryan, Mark B. 2001. A Collegiate Way of Living: Residential Colleges and a Yale Education. New Haven, Connecticut: Jonathan Edwards College, Yale University. (The best collection of essays available on residential college life, written by a long-time residential college dean at Yale.)

Taylor, Kevin. 1994. Central Cambridge: A Guide to the University and Colleges. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. (A good brief guide to the architecture and history of the residential colleges of Cambridge University.)

Veysey, Laurence R. 1965. The Emergence of the American University. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. (An excellent scholarly account of the rise of the Germanic university model in the United States.)

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016