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Housing: What are the alternatives?

Campus is abuzz with talk of housing reform. Some students are proposing changes to our current system, while others are defending it. One thing is certain: Duke’s housing system is unique. None of our peer institutions offer anything quite like it.

Nowhere else are incoming students randomly assigned to freshman dorms on their own campus, then sorted into one of three distinct residential communities—independent housing, Greek organizations or non-Greek selective living groups (SLGs)—where they will live for up to three years.

To inform our conversation on housing, we should consider the following question: How do our peer institutions handle housing? 

Which housing models enjoy broad student satisfaction, and which ones disappoint students? Specifically, which models foster friendship, academic success, intellectual curiosity, healthy social interactions, peer mentorship and exposure to a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives?

In writing this piece, we spoke to dozens of students at Duke’s peer institutions. Again and again, we heard the same suggestion: If Duke is seriously considering housing reform, we should examine the residential college system. 

At Yale, first-years are randomly assigned into residential colleges before they arrive on campus. Approximately 600 to 800 students live in each college. In their first year, only some students live with their residential college, but everyone has weekly meals with their college and full access to its resources. Each residential college has a head and a dean. The former lives and eats in the college with their family, while the latter manages the academic affairs of students in the college. Residential colleges also sponsor events within the college to build community among their students. 

Regarding Yale’s system, Yale freshman Sammy Landino told us, “I remember coming to school as a freshman and feeling really dislocated in a campus with over 5,000 people who I, for the most part, didn’t know at all. Yale’s residential college system immediately placed me in the heart of student life.” It’s no surprise then, that when two Yale alumni meet, they ask each other, “What college were you in?” Residential college living is, according to Yale, “an affiliation that lasts a lifetime.” 

Harvard’s “Upperclass House” system is composed of 12 houses that serve as the center of residential life for sophomores, juniors and seniors. At the end of each academic year, first-years form a bloc with their friends, and then each bloc is randomly assigned to a house. Campus erupts in celebration on Housing Day, when students learn of their house assignments. 

Each Harvard house has its own dean to preside over the house and its activities. Houses also have a house committee which plans events and operates similarly to Duke’s house councils. While students can choose to live off campus beginning in their sophomore year, 98 percent of undergraduates choose to live in the residential houses. Harvard sophomore Wesley Cash told us that the house model “makes Harvard feel smaller and creates a friendly sense of rivalry and community at the college. Seeing familiar [faces] in the dining halls, celebrating unique house traditions, or simply attending house community dinners every Thursday make Harvard feel a bit more like home.”

The Rice residential college system is similar to the system at Yale. First-years are sorted into 11 different colleges for their first year. Unlike at Yale, however, most first-years live in their colleges. Rice’s system stresses student self-governance with several different governing bodies that manage student-operated resources like tutors or peer health advisers. Rice senior Sam Akers told us, “Each college is a community unto itself. You live, eat, learn and grow with the same people your entire college career, so opportunities abound for deep friendships. It really is a family.” He added, “If I had to point out a downside for you, it's that everyone not in your college is a part of a different college—it's hard to nurture those same close friendships with people outside your bubble.”

Northwestern’s system allows for more flexibility compared to the other approaches mentioned. Undergraduates can choose to be part of residence halls, residential communities, or residential colleges. Residence halls work like independent housing on Duke’s West Campus. Residential communities are similar to residential halls but they stress faculty engagement by featuring faculty-in-residence like Duke’s first-year housing. Northwestern’s residential colleges are typically themed. Faculty related to the theme live within the residential colleges. Non-residential students can also affiliate with the colleges. Northwestern’s residential colleges are similar to Duke’s selective living groups but with an academic tilt exemplified by the faculty-in-residence.

Other universities with residential college systems include Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Miami and Cornell University.

Admittedly, the data we present are anecdotal and limited to only a few institutions. But if Duke administrators and Board of Trustees are as excited as students are to examine the alternatives to Duke’s housing model, they’ll know where to find the data. Duke contributes data on student outcomes to the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE), which in turn allows Duke to access data from peer institutions. COFHE data includes information on housing, such as student responses to the question, “Do you have a sense of community where you live?” 

 In a “data brief” dated Sept. 21, 2017, Duke’s Office of Student Affairs found that only 56 percent of Duke students graduating in 2017 agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “Duke houses provide a sense of community and sense of belonging.” 

Our largely anecdotal discussion here would be greatly complemented if we could compare Duke students’ responses on “sense of community where you live” to responses from students at Yale, Harvard, Rice, Princeton, Northwestern and other schools with a residential college system. 

Let’s hope the administrators with access to confidential COFHE data have read to this point and will investigate the matter. The moment is ripe.

Matthew T. King is a Trinity senior and Spencer Kaplan is a Trinity first-year.


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