EDUCATION

Residential colleges: As Dartmouth plans overhaul, a look at how they work at some schools

Colleges are confronting the related problems of sexual assault and drinking with a mix of solutions, some aimed at changing an ingrained culture that encourages irresponsible behavior. Dartmouth College appears to be the only school responding by completely overhauling its housing into a system of "residential colleges" — a concept that goes back centuries in England but exists at only about 30 U.S. schools.

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ABOUT RESIDENTIAL COLLEGES

They typically involve small, faculty-led communities that include students from various years and backgrounds, and nearly all of them were created for reasons unrelated to the challenges Dartmouth and other schools are currently facing.

Harvard and Yale were among the first U.S. schools to adopt residential college systems in the 1930s, but most others stuck with the Germanic model of a centralized campus focused on research and graduate education, said Robert O'Hara, a Massachusetts-based education consultant and a leading advocate for the residential college model. But interest has been building since the 1990s, for a variety of reasons, including academic and student recruitment concerns.

Here is a sampling of U.S. schools' experiences with residential colleges:

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RICE UNIVERSITY

The Texas school, which started its residential college system in 1957, randomly assigns every student to one of 11 colleges. About 75 percent of students live in the colleges, where freshmen are mixed in with upperclassman, there is significant interaction with faculty and staff and students govern themselves.

John Hutchinson, dean of undergraduates, said the system creates a "culture of care" that helps prevent problems and leaves students better prepared to deal with them. For example, the school's decision to ban hard alcohol followed recommendations from residential college leaders.

"It arose out of the leadership of students saying, 'We think this change is important for the safety and health of our community,'" Hutchinson said. "That means that we then have much better compliance because we have better buy-in."

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MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE

Middlebury College in Vermont divides students into five "commons," where recent Middlebury graduates live in the residence halls as advisers, and faculty members are responsible for programming such as lectures, field trips and dinner discussions.

Students live in Commons residence halls for their first two years. They remain members of their original Commons as juniors and seniors but may live elsewhere.

The system was created in the early 1990s, shortly after the college effectively eliminated its Greek system by requiring any fraternity to be co-ed. Though the latter move was motivated by some of the same problems Dartmouth is now facing, officials say the subsequent move to a house system was not a direct response to such problems.

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TRINITY COLLEGE

Connecticut's Trinity announced plans in in 2012 to create a residential house system similar to what Dartmouth envisions. Though the larger goal — shared by Dartmouth — was to foster an intellectual environment that integrates academics and social life, the committee that recommended the house system also mentioned specific concerns about drinking and other risky behavior.

The administration has since decided, however, to try to implement key features of a residential college system without the expensive construction. Instead, incoming students will be assigned to one of five mentoring networks whose members will include faculty, upper-level students, recent graduates and others focused on career development and wellness.

"The focus will be on our vast social and human capital, providing students with the kinds of support and experiences that are integral to defining their sense of self and community, especially at a liberal arts college," said Associate Academic Dean Sonia Cardenas.

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MURRAY STATE UNIVERSITY

This Kentucky school bills itself as the first public university to create a comprehensive residential college system.

Created in 1996, the system of eight colleges was launched to increase retention and graduation rates at a time when many students reported not feeling connected to their peers, said Don Robertson, vice president of student affairs.

Every student, including commuters, belongs to a college, as do all faculty members. The on-site faculty members serve as ombudsmen and advocates for students, Robertson said, and students are able to hone their leadership skills through the residential college governance structure.

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VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY

Vanderbilt opened 10 residential colleges for freshmen in 2008 and two more for older students last fall. Cynthia Cyrus, provost for learning and residential affairs, said there have been fewer reports of "extreme behaviors" from the two new colleges compared to traditional accommodations, and students living in the freshmen houses and the new colleges more often have what she calls "the difficult conversations" about rape, religion and other issues.

Having those discussions with fellow residents from different years makes them more meaningful, said sophomore Vivek Shah, a resident adviser in Moore College, where two dormitories are connected by a central area that includes classrooms, conference rooms, and space for eating and studying.

"Here, you humanize the conversation ... you understand that this is a problem that happens to people around you," he said. "You begin to have this sense of, if something were to happen to me, I have people around me who wouldn't just stand by and would know what to do."