Future of Residential Colleges Depends on Academic, Student Life Synergy

BY BRIAN C. MITCHELL

As enrollment continues to soften at four-year residential colleges, college administrators must increasingly justify the philosophies behind and the costs associated with them.

It’s a sad commentary when colleges must defend what was once perceived to be the best justification for students to attend them.

The older argument fell along these lines:

  • Attendance at a four-year residential college offers students the luxury to explore their interests, grow in maturity, and broaden their horizons.
  • Residential colleges impose expectations on students. They must learn to live together. They must utilize the dozens of student-organized clubs and activities that can shape their extracurricular experiences to become well educated, committed, and productive citizens.

In short, the residential college supports the academic interests to provide a comprehensive education for their students.

Indeed, many residential colleges do just that. They have a clear focus, mission statement, and governing and operational philosophy. They offer a wide variety of programming and link their residential experience to in-class philosophy and practice.

But as the market softens, there are growing problems with how residential colleges will develop against a backdrop of the mounting pressures on them.

The first pressure is internal. While many colleges have a respectable sense of self, for countless others the student life programs that shape the residential college experience are often a mishmash “cookie cutter” hodgepodge drawn from peer and aspirant experiences that are not explicitly linked to their college’s strategic direction or even a precise program fit.

A review of most residential college literature, for example, seldom produces a clear statement of mission or how students translate their first efforts at interdependence to independence.

What is the seamless path that prepares them to move psychologically, socially, and culturally into the workforce after graduation?

Second, colleges must be judged ultimately by the buy-in their programs receive, especially from students, staff, and faculty. At many colleges, student life programs operate quite separately from the academic programs they should support.

Further, student life professionals lack the level of respect that the faculty enjoys. They are decidedly junior players in the campus pecking order. Senior administrators often see them less as developmental agents and more as some combination of truant officer and baby sitter.

These problems extend to student life professionals’ relationship with the students. In this regard, campus culture can play a large role in how residential life develops.

More progressive campuses involve students in residential life, including in critical areas like discipline. Progressive campuses often have honor codes and student disciplinary boards. But these processes require that campus administrators share power with students. This act can translate into a teachable moment for students on the best-run campuses. And it can also foster the trust and transparency that make good residential life programs better.

Third, the cost of residential life plays directly into the impact it has on campus. A good residential life program is expensive. Colleges that do not take a hard look at their programs also run the risk of adding programs to ensure comprehensiveness while seldom rejecting what no longer works. The result is that many colleges run a much larger offering of programs than is needed. Students should be able to start new programs, especially when the costs of the proposed program is prioritized and matched to the available resources. But in the end a residential life program is a rationing tool.

As such, residential life administrators can support any program that they choose but not all of the programs that students want. This is where strategy comes into play.

There must be a clear sense of direction, an ability to execute and assess, and a strong connection to the academic programs to determine whether the teachable moment provided by residence life staff meets the academic standards espoused by the college. There must be synergy between student life and the academic programs in a residential setting.

The best educational strategies balance people, programs, and facilities. A residential life program is also an open invitation to intersect the needs of the college with those of the community. In a fully integrated strategy, the social, cultural, wellness, human rights, and philanthropic initiatives supported by residential life programs are grounded in the neighborhood, town, and region. They share common purpose and direction. They avoid duplicating facilities.

In an era of diminishing resources, a robust residential life program is essential to a college’s identity. But if its purpose is unclear, its detractors will take advantage to open residence life to debilitating cutbacks.

The solution begins with a deeper commitment to the four-year residential college. It starts with a reaffirmation of why the residential learning experience defines them and who and what they teach. Their renewed commitment must establish metrics that shape each of the four years in a student’s life, linking the programs to critical outcomes like retention and graduation rates.

A residential college is an expensive way to educate students. Yet for many students, it is the transformative experience of their lives. Its advocates must shepherd its programs into responsible and cost-effective alignment to demonstrate to families as consumers — without apology and with considerable pride — that “you get what you pay for.”

This article first appeared on the blog of The Edvance Foundation.

One thought on “Future of Residential Colleges Depends on Academic, Student Life Synergy

  1. As online courses proliferate, extracurricular programs are critical to the value of residential college education. But they don’t have to be hugely expensive. If there is more student and faculty and community involvement, it’s possible to greatly expand and improve extracurricular programs without the large cost of hiring an army of new administrators.

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