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Residential Colleges

Defining Residential Colleges and Related Terms, The Classic Residential College, Benefits of Residential Colleges

Islamic in origin, the residential college may well be the oldest organizational model in Western higher education. Established as foundations to provide support for advanced students, residential colleges first appeared at the University of Paris and Oxford University in the twelfth century. From these medieval roots, the residential colleges of Oxford and Cambridge University evolved to become academic communities made up of students and faculty sharing living quarters, meals, and tutorial study. Oxford and Cambridge served as models for colleges and universities throughout the former colonies of England and beyond.

Defining Residential Colleges and Related Terms

Residential colleges have evolved over the centuries and under different local conditions. As a consequence, there is a range of variation in their structures and a lack of consensus about the meaning of the term residential college. In its most generic sense, the term may be used to refer to an institution that houses most of its students on-campus as opposed to an institution with a large commuter or off-campus population. Many small, independent, liberal arts colleges conform to this definition of residential college. In a more restricted sense, the term residential college may be used interchangeably with terms such as living-learning center, theme house, and residential learning community. This usage, however, may obscure important differences between the classical model of residential college, conventional residence halls, and other types of contemporary residence education programs.

Conventional residence halls are on-campus facilities intended to provide low-cost, attractive, safe, and convenient living quarters for undergraduate students in close proximity to academic buildings. Residents may participate in dining plans provided by centralized dining facilities and services. Conventional halls are usually supervised by undergraduate resident advisers and professional staff members trained in student affairs administration. Staff members are trained to assist students with adjustment and developmental issues or to make appropriate referrals to other campus professionals. Conventional residence halls may offer a range of social, recreational, and educational programming organized by their staffs.

Contemporary residence education programs attempt to more completely integrate out-of-class experiences with in-class learning. In a 1998 opinion paper, the Residential College Task Force of the Association of College and University Housing Officers presented a number of models of existing residence education programs. There is considerable overlap among these models; the differences are often matters of emphasis. These programs are generally the result of partnerships between student affairs professionals, academic staff, and faculty.

Living-learning centers are programs with direct connections to specific academic programs such as foreign languages, premedical studies, or science. For instance, the McTyeire International House at Vanderbilt University clusters students interested in studying one of five foreign languages on halls with native speakers as program coordinators. Faculty advisers guide the programming of each language hall.

Theme houses offer opportunities for students with special interests to live and work together. Stanford University offers a variety of theme halls. Casa Zapata (Chicano/Mexican-American theme) and Ujamaa (black/African-American theme) are cross-cultural theme halls exploring issues of ethnic identity, culture, and history. Other halls offer programs for students with interests in community service and environmental issues.

Academic residential programs provide academic support services, such as academic advising, career planning, tutoring, and programming in study skills, to residential students. At Washington State University, the Academic Resource Center is located in the freshman residential complex. The center provides a computer lab, academic advising, tutoring, and programming on study skills, career planning, and time management. Specially trained, upper-level residents are assigned as academic peer advisers to freshmen.

Residential learning communities create opportunities for students attending the same classes to live in the same residence hall. Participants in the Scholars Program at the University of Maryland–College Park are grouped so that they can take fourteen to seventeen credits of curricular theme courses together over the first two years of college and participate in a colloquium on their theme.

Freshman Year Experience housing provides specialized housing configurations to focus delivery of student affairs and academic services to first-year students. At the University of Missouri–Columbia, groups of up to twenty freshmen take three courses together and live on the same floor with a peer adviser assigned to help first-year students with adjustment issues.

The Classic Residential College

Residential colleges and the aforementioned forms of contemporary residence education programs share a common goal of seeking to integrate in-class learning with out-of-class experiences in residential settings. What distinguishes classic residential colleges from other forms of residence education is the level and quality of faculty involvement. In residential colleges found in leading universities, faculty and students live and work in shared residential facilities. Further, the program is staffed and directed by the affiliated and resident faculty. In rare instances, the college is itself a degree-granting institution.

While the functions, nomenclature, and organizational structures of colleges differ from university to university, leading institutions in the United States share certain general patterns. In institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Rice Universities, residential colleges are decentralized academic societies or associations composed of faculty and student members. They range in size from 250 to 500 members. A distinction is usually drawn between senior and junior members of the college. The senior membership includes faculty, selected staff, and distinguished members of the local community. The junior membership includes undergraduate and graduate students. Residential colleges are microcosms of their universities. Senior members are drawn from all schools and departments; care is taken to achieve a balance in disciplinary representation. The junior members of a college reflect the full range of academic interests and backgrounds present in the university as a whole. Some schools randomly assign junior members to their colleges. Others take into consideration the preferences of junior members but also take measures to ensure that students do not self-segregate on the basis of demographic characteristics.

A faculty member is appointed to serve as the master of the college and has oversight responsibility for the college as a whole. The master reports to the chief academic officer or the chancellor or president of the university. A college dean is also appointed from the faculty and is responsible for academic advising and the personal welfare of student members of the college. Affiliated senior members are expected to attend college functions, dine frequently at the college, and take an interest in the life of the college. Senior members are appointed for specific terms and periodically reviewed. Resident tutors are selected from the graduate student members of the college and serve as intellectual role models, mentors, and advisers for the undergraduate students. They are supervised by the dean.

In a residential college, the staff works to create an orderly, satisfying, and nurturing environment that fosters a sense of belonging, promotes positive relationships among all members of the community, and is organized around the experience of learning. The master, the dean, and, especially, the resident tutors are visible and available members of the community; they closely observe their students, listen to their concerns, and respond as needed. Colleges have active student governments and seek to provide leadership opportunities for all junior members. The senior members of the college and the resident tutors are expected to participate in the evening activities, both formal and informal, of the college.

A residential college has its own character and culture; a conscious effort is made to create and sustain a tradition and a sense of history. A college program has a measured temporal structure providing for regular interactions of its members and for special events with ritual significance. Colleges hold regular weekly, monthly, and annual meetings. A common meal plan for students and staff plays a central role in establishing the college community. Welcoming events are held for new members as well as commencement events for departing members. Colleges create unique identities by celebrating selected events such as specific holidays or anniversaries. The pattern of events and activities is intended to be meaningful for its members; the program fosters shared norms, values, and expectations. These shared meanings may even be embodied in artifacts such as murals, facebooks (containing photographs of and biographical information on the college's residents), commonplace books, insignia, and mascots.

The central purpose of the college is academic. Colleges may provide academic advising for their junior members, offer for-credit classes or not-for-credit study, and organize opportunities for formal and informal discussions with faculty and visiting scholars and artists. Social activities are organized around opportunities for learning. Poetry readings, recitals, theatrical productions, scientific experiments, reading groups, field trips, and attendance at cultural and artistic events are common activities in residential colleges.

The architecture of the classic residential college promotes its educational mission. College buildings and gardens generally demarcate some sort of an enclosed space, such as a quadrangle. The enclosure helps foster a sense of communal identity and can be used to create traffic patterns promoting positive interaction among the college's members. The master, the dean, the resident tutors, and their families are provided with living quarters. Each college has an office complex to support the master, dean, and resident tutors. Central to the life of a college is a dining commons large enough to seat all of the members of the college. The dining commons can be used for announcements, college meetings, social activities, and special events. Separate meeting or social rooms are provided for senior and junior members. Libraries, classrooms, guest apartments, art studios, computer labs, kitchens, and laundries are often included in college facilities.

Benefits of Residential Colleges

The benefits for students derived from simply living on campus, as opposed to living off campus, are well documented. Living on campus has been linked to increases in aesthetic, cultural, and intellectual values; increases in self-concept, intellectual orientation, autonomy, and independence; gains in tolerance, empathy, and interpersonal skills; persistence in college; and degree attainment. According to a 1991 book by Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini, there is little evidence linking living in a conventional residence hall with knowledge acquisition or cognitive growth. A 1998 meta-analysis by Gregory Blimling of studies published from 1966 through June 1997 shows, however, that residential colleges, as compared to conventional halls, increase students' academic performance and retention and enhance the social climate of the living unit. Blimling's study does not distinguish clearly between classic residential colleges and living-learning centers.

According to studies conducted in 1991 by George D. Kuh and associates and in 1993 by Jerry A. Stark, faculty participating in residential colleges or living/learning centers report improvement in their teaching skills and enhanced relationships with faculty from other disciplines. Frances Arndt reported in 1993 that faculty also held positive attitudes about opportunities offered by residential colleges for teaching a variety of special and experimental courses.

Challenges and Prospects

In the 1996 book Importing Oxbridge, Alex Duke analyzed factors affecting the failure of residential college systems in North America. While attempting to model their colleges after the exemplars of Oxford and Cambridge, North American educators did not understand the historical development or social context of these institutions. Further, the departmental organization of academic disciplines does not cohere with the interdisciplinary character of residential colleges. Finally, the rapid postwar growth in enrollment simply outstripped the ability of institutions to provide housing for students. In a chapter in the 1994 book Realizing the Educational Potential of Residence Halls, Terry B. Smith argued that institutional reward structures focus on disciplinary achievement in the form of scholarly research, publication, and grant awards. There is little incentive for faculty to work with students in out-of-class contexts. Will Koch reported in a 1999 article in College Student Affairs Journal that students may prefer conventional housing assignment practices that permit self-segregation by demographic characteristics. Finally, residential colleges require considerable investments in personnel and facilities. Funding for programming and space requirements as well as compensation for participating faculty make residential college programs more expensive than conventional residence halls.

Since the publication of the landmark study Involvement in Learning: Realizing the Potential of Higher Education, published by the National Institute of Education in 1984, numerous reports have called for increased emphases on improving teaching and learning, increasing student involvement in learning, and integrating in-class and out-of-class learning. Residential colleges are clearly one way to achieve these goals. There is evidence of growing interest in living-learning centers and residential college models. The future of the residential college model may depend on its cost-effectiveness relative to other means for achieving these educational goals.


ARNDT, FRANCES. 1993. "Making Connections: The Mission of UNCG's Residential College." In Gateways: Residential Colleges in the Freshman Year Experience, ed. Terry B. Smith. Columbia, SC: National Resource Center for the Freshman Year Experience.

BLIMLING, GREGORY S. 1998. "The Benefits and Limitations of Residential Colleges: A Meta-Analysis of the Research." In Residential Colleges: Reforming American Higher Education, ed. F. King Alexander and Don E. Robertson. Lexington, KY: Oxford International Round Table.

DUKE, ALEX. 1996. Importing Oxbridge: English Residential Colleges and American Universities. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

KOCH, WILL. 1999. "Integration and De Facto Segregation in Campus Housing: An Analysis of Campus Housing Policy." College Student Affairs Journal 18 (2):35–43.

KUH, GEORGE D.; SCHUH, JOHN H.; WHITT, ELIZABETH J.; and ASSOCIATES. 1991. Involving Colleges: Successful Approaches to Fostering Student Learning and Development outside the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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RESIDENTIAL COLLEGE TASK FORCE. 1998. The Residential Nexus: A Focus on Student Learning. Columbus, OH: Association of College and University Housing Officers-International.

RYAN, MARK. 1992. "Residential Colleges: A Legacy of Living and Learning Together." Change 24 (5):26–35.

SMITH, TERRY B., ed. 1992. Proceedings of the First Annual Conference of Residential Colleges and Living-Learning Centers. Kirksville: Northeast Missouri State University.

SMITH, TERRY B. 1994. "Integrating Living and Learning through Residential Colleges." In Realizing the Educational Potential of Residence Halls, ed. Charles C. Schroeder and Phyllis Mable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

STARK, JERRY A. 1993. "Putting the College Back in University." In Gateways: Residential Colleges in the Freshman Year Experience, ed. Terry B. Smith. Columbia, SC: National Resource Center for the Freshman Year Experience.

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O'HARA, ROBERT J. 2001. "How to Build a Residential College." <http://collegiateway.org/howto.html>.


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