How to Build a Residential College

Planning for Higher Education, 30(2): 52-57, Winter 2001-2002

6 Pages Posted: 3 Feb 2015

Date Written: 2001


Critics of higher education in the United States have been missing their proper target for many years. It may be true on some large campuses that “tenured radicals” and trendy courses have politicized the curriculum and brought about a local collapse of Western civilization. But it is also true that radical professors have been annoying the establishment since Peter Abelard disturbed the church fathers in medieval Paris, and trendy courses have been objects of scorn since Harvard University first allowed its students to substitute French for Hebrew (in 1787).

The real crisis in higher education today is not about the curriculum, it is about the poverty of student life. At most large universities in the last 40 years, the faculty have given up all responsibility for the lives of students outside the classroom and the resulting vacuum has been filled with nonacademic residence life departments. For a generation, troubles such as out-of-control dormitories, social isolation, alcohol abuse, institutionally promoted segregation, and a complete lack of connection between the classroom and life outside the classroom have plagued universities that nevertheless advertise themselves as “caring” and “student-centered.”

The solution to the problem of the poverty of campus life is simple and radical: we must return the faculty to their proper place — not just as teachers in the classroom but as the principal influences on student life throughout the university. On some campuses, this is already happening through a return to one of the oldest models of university structure in existence: the decentralized residential colleges of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Keywords: colleges, collegiate universities, education reform, higher education, house systems, liberal education, planning, residential colleges, student life, universities

JEL Classification: I20

Suggested Citation

O’Hara, Robert J., How to Build a Residential College (2001). Planning for Higher Education, 30(2): 52-57, Winter 2001-2002, Available at SSRN:

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