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


House Systems in Schools and Universities

[The Hogwarts Houses: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff]If you want to establish a house system in a high school, a community college, or a university, the Collegiate Way website is for you: it’s a comprehensive how-to manual. Although the Collegiate Way is written mainly for a university audience, the hundreds of pages of ideas, examples, and recommendations presented here can be carried over to middle and secondary school environments and to non-residential community colleges, and even to online institutions, with only a few adjustments.

At the university level, the term house system is generally synonymous with residential college system, so throughout the Collegiate Way website whenever you see “residential college” you can usually substitute “house” and the meaning will be the same. The house system at Harvard University and the residential college system at Yale University, for example, are identical: they were founded at the same time, with a donation from the same benefactor, and have the typical organizational structure found in all standard residential college systems: a master and a dean, a body of fellows (senior members), and a body of a few hundred students (junior members) for each house/college. It is purely an accident of history that the arrangement at Harvard came to be called a house system and the arrangement at Yale came to be called a residential college system. The fundamental purpose of these house and college systems is the same no matter what they are called, and no matter whether they are found in a high school or a university: they exist to divide a large school into small, permanent, faculty-led, cross-sectional, human-friendly components that promote both learning and loyalty.

Readers who are new to this organizational model should understand that house systems and residential college systems need not be entirely, or even largely, residential, and they need not be curricular. The term house in these contexts, like the term college, does not designate a building or a curriculum, but rather a body of people. Houses and colleges have members rather than residents (although at the university level they often do have residential buildings associated with them in which some or all of the members live). In the residential college systems of Oxford and Cambridge universities in Great Britain—the original residential college systems—the people in charge of the colleges are known by a great variety of titles, from master to principal to dean to warden to provost to president. But they are collectively referred to as heads of houses, since each college is a great household: a body of a few hundred members with a particular organizational structure who come together for a special purpose, like the House of Representatives in the United States or the House of Commons in Great Britain. (The term college is sometimes used in this generic sense, too, of course: the College of Cardinals and the College of Physicians and Surgeons are both bodies of people, like the House of Representatives; they are not academic institutions.) It is not a building or a curriculum that makes a house: it is a network of member relationships, developed through long acquaintance in a stable community and regular interaction throughout the year.

Online house systems: Online education is growing every year, and while it might seem that the concepts developed here on the Collegiate Way website would not apply to online environments, that is most certainly not the case. Just as a collegiate house system can be established in a secondary day-school or a non-residential community college, so also could such a system be established for the members of an online institution. A special Collegiate Way page on online house systems offers some recommendations.

When residential college systems are established or proposed for institutions that use “college” as part of the institution’s name, the term “house system” is generally more appropriate, simply to avoid confusion. Hence the established house system at Sir Arthur Lewis Community College in St. Lucia, and the proposals to establish a house system at Messiah College in Pennsylvania.

The term “house system” is also commonly used for the equivalent of a university-level residential college system within a secondary school, where the word “college” would generally be out of place. The many detailed recommendations offered throughout the Collegiate Way website for creating residential colleges within universities can, with only minor adjustments, be applied directly to the creation of houses within secondary schools. The secondary school house model has become familiar to millions of people around the world through the popular Harry Potter novels of author J.K. Rowling. These stories are set in the fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where all the students are assigned randomly (well, OK, magically, by means of a “sorting hat”) to one of four houses: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw. It has become common for undergraduates entering university-level residential colleges to compare their experiences to the world of Harry Potter (with or without the magic). Grownups have been known to make the Hogwarts comparison, too.

Houses established within secondary schools should embody the same principles described throughout the Collegiate Way website: they should be small, permanent, cross-sectional, family-like, co-curricular societies, led by the school’s faculty. They should have a rich and regular rhythm of life, week after week and month after month, that lets students feel personally secure while the academic curriculum works to stretch their abilities. Houses at the secondary level should be considerably smaller than at the university level: 100–150 members is closer to the ideal size, as opposed to roughly 400 for university-level residential colleges with a substantial residential component. Nearly all of the recommendations offered here for structuring the life of a university-level residential college can be applied with minimal alteration to a house within a secondary school (or a within community college, or within an online institution), and the recommended sequence for establishing a house community applies also. You can get started today.

So, whether you are a secondary school student or teacher, or a post-secondary student or teacher; whether you work at a residential campus, or a non-residential campus, the ideas recommended throughout the Collegiate Way website apply to you!

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021