The Best of Both Worlds: Residential Colleges
When it comes to choosing a college, size matters. Large universities offer students many academic choices, state-of-the-art research facilities, and plenty of diversity. But their sheer size can be overwhelming to some students and can make it difficult for students and faculty to foster a sense of community. Small colleges offer that sense of community, as well as smaller class sizes and more opportunities to interact with faculty. But smaller colleges can't match the variety and facilities of larger universities.
A small but growing trend at larger universities offers students the best of both worlds. Residential colleges, a long tradition in England and some Ivy League schools, provide students with smaller communities within large universities.
Readers of the "Harry Potter" books may recognize the concept: Students are assigned to a particular college (like the houses at Hogwarts), where they live and learn throughout their school years. Ideally, each college has between 200 and 500 members, and it is a microcosm or cross-section of the university as a whole. Faculty members are key participants in residential life, acting as heads of the colleges and even living in special apartments in student residence halls.
Advantages of residential colleges include a strong sense of community, opportunities to interact with faculty and students outside of your major, and a dorm that feels more like home. The idea is to link academics and daily life, so that dorm life supports and adds to students' intellectual and social development.
Robert O'Hara, a biology professor at Middlebury College (VT) and a proponent of residential colleges, writes about the ideal residential college on his Web site (www.collegiateway.org): "Each college should contain the old, the young, the teacher, the student, the poetic, the prosaic, the bold, the shy, the clever, the plodding, the careless, the careful, the wealthy, the poor, the compassionate, the cold, the industrious, the lazy, the neurotic, the peaceful, the refined, the vulgar, the emotional, the analytical, the earnest, the satirical--and by bringing them all together in the small, stable, academically rich setting that a residential college can provide, week after week, year after year after year, they will all learn, grow, [and] shine."
Some schools, such as Rice University (TX), Truman State University (MO), and Harvard College (MA), are organized on a residential college system. Other universities offer the option of a residential college experience to a limited number of students.
O'Hara notes that many colleges offer "theme halls" for students of similar interests, but such housing can't compare to a residential college. "While [theme halls] may seem at first like a good idea, I would discourage this kind of arrangement," he says. "Students should be exposed to people with a wide range of interests and experiences, and shouldn't be segregated this way in their housing."
Although fewer than 30 colleges in the United States currently incorporate the residential college system into some or all of their housing, the concept is receiving attention and support.
For more information about residential colleges, including a list of schools that offer them, see www.collegiateway.org/colleges/.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. © 2008 National Association for College Admission Counseling.
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