Putting the college back in college

A university made up of small, faculty-led residential colleges on the Oxford/Cambridge model provides the best education for students argues Collegiate Way.

If universities are to have the transformative effect they ought to have on the lives of young people then the faculty must become the principal influences on student life throughout their institutions. They can do this by reviving one of the oldest models of university structure in existence: the decentralized residential colleges of Oxford and Cambridge Universities in Great Britain. Within these small collegiate communities — communities that include young and old, rich and poor, student and professor, artist and scientist — a stable, challenging, and diverse social and intellectual environment can be restored. This is already beginning to happen on many campuses, and a genuine residential college movement is now underway.

I agree that it’s ideal. Many students are lost in large universities. But is it financially feasible? Collegiate Way has some links that say yes.

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  1. Oh, poo! I’ll defer to any serious research on the issue, but, having gone to a residential college (one of the ones CollegiateWay worked at, for that matter), I think he is completely overselling the case. We certainly had no shortage of “social isolation, alcohol abuse and vandalism, institutionally-promoted segregation, and a loss of connection between the classroom and student life outside the classroom”

  2. Steve LaBonne says:

    In my undergraduate experience at Harvard (’76 – Currier House) there was not all that much to distinguish a house from a plain old dorm. Perhaps some of the other houses were more collegial and/or the system has been revitalized since my time.

  3. Rice University in Houston uses a collegiate approach that seems to work very well. All students are full-time, first-year students must live on campus unless they are already local residents, and studens are assigned randomly to one of several ‘colleges’. This top-notch school is a fairly well-kept secret that more than holds its own against the quality of graduates turned out by the Ivy League tier.

    As a private university, Rice can be very selective in their students, and it is that selectivity that is key to their success. Prospective students are screened in interviews, in addition to the required transcripts and test results. They look for well-rounded students who show a degree of depth and maturity. They also try to eliminate students who may not show the maturity and stability to handle a highly competitive situation – meaning, that students who are used to being in the top percentile at their high schools may suddenly find themselves in the company of others who are at least as smart as they are, if not frequently smarter. Some kids can’t handle the stress of suddenly being ‘one of the crowd’ instead of the top of the heap, and it causes problems: behavioral issues, depression, suicides, etc.

    In addition, Rice has a strict honor code. Cheating is easy to do; they rely on students’ sense of honor to not cheat. For example, a final exam may be take-home. You are asked on your honor to do the work yourself. You are trusted, and it is assumed that you are worthy of that trust. Surprisingly few students violate the honor code.

  4. I am a graduate of Rice (BA ’77) and the college system is one of the best features of the university. It works well there. The students are not “randomly” assigned, however. Legacies can ask for a parent’s or sibling’s college (or to exclude it). After that is taken care of, the rest are pseudo-randomly assigned (some balance of foreign/Texas/Houston students is attempte, IIRC), followed by a “trading” session by the college masters. It is along the lines of “I have too many engineers – anyone got extra Archis or music majors?”.

    The colleges eat together, have sports teams, social events, etc. One sponsors a Shakespeare play each year, one does a musical, etc. All of this, combined with the effects of having faculty living in the college, some volunteering as associates, etc. meant that at meal times you might sit one day with a econ prof., the next a chemical engineering prof., the next a visitng Nobel laureate, and the next an invited lecturer (Gene Roddenberry and Freeman Dyson in my case).

    It provided the advantages of the Greek system without the social/financial snobbery. Both of my parents were from schools with Greek houses, were officers of theirs, and liked what they saw of the college system.

  5. Yale too. You eat, sleep, and play with your college mates. It’s the first thing you ask a Yalie – what college were you in? It does really help bring a 5000-student undergrad population down to a more human size. Still lots of drinking though.

    Harvard’s “houses” are dorms, nothing more. Yet another way in which it is inferior. (ducks)

  6. jeff wright says:

    I don’t have any personal experience with the college system. I attended a large, state university and my daughter attended a small, private university. However, her school was so small (no TAs and 10 students per prof) that I always envied her, even whilst writing those checks. She was required to live on campus the first year in a freshmen-only dorm, got a great education, knew most of her classmates and was socialized to a far greater degree than I ever was. Oh, yeah, she partied, too. Ten years later, she stays in touch with many classmates and is much more connected to the school than I ever was to mine. I attribute much of her career success to her favorable college experience.

    To me, smaller is better and I think the college system makes a great deal of sense. Wish I’d had it.


  1. Remembering Claremont

    Joanne Jacobs discusses Collegiate Way, which is trying to create faculty-led colleges within larger universities.