Becoming Intentional About Student Life

If the residential learning experience continues to define a wide range of traditional higher education settings, then college leadership - including faculty - must become far more intentional about it.

At the moment, there are two principal levels of influence dominating the residential part of the learning experience. The first is the presumed social contract between the student and the institution. The second is the array of housing options available to them.

In most respects, the social contract is the heart of the residential experience. It defines the range of opportunities available to students, the terms under which they live in a campus communal setting, and the penalties for violating this contract. When it's done right, the social contract becomes a powerful admissions, retention, graduation, placement and alumni tool.

When alumni reflect upon their college years, for example, it's typically the strength of their relationship with their professors that dominate their thinking. But the comprehensive "surround" - personal peer friendships, sports, clubs, and religious opportunities to name a few - build added emotional depth to deepen alumni memories as the mist and myth of their college years settles in.

Why, then, do so many American colleges and universities treat student residential life as less of an intimate social contract and more like a residential housing question?

Part of the problem is often the lack of an overarching strategy to define a four-year experience. Beware of institutions that promise limited on-campus housing but also tout well-rounded residential learning. Read the fine print carefully to ascertain how these institutions deepen a learning experience for upper division students.

Further, look at the specific outcome that an institution is working to achieve. In most settings, the goal is to use student life as a "teachable moment," building the thousand teachable moments that occur outside the classroom into a comprehensive student life strategy that supports academics.

Ideally, the first student experiences should be deliberately communal, teaching students how to live together within a bigger campus setting. The mid-point of their college experience should introduce more flexible options to provide choice and move the student - often sheltered by the family environment, age, and circumstances - toward independence. The end years should focus on independence, preparing young adults to move into a society that is global, often unforgiving but full of opportunity for those who understand how best to navigate it.

Put in other terms, student life administrators must ask two questions. The first is: What is the purpose of residential living and how does it support the academic program? The second is: Do we have a strategy in place that develops and prepares the student as the student moves from "cradle to career" through the college experience?

It's usually in the transition from communal life to more independence when American higher education institutions make their most critical mistake. Rather than shape options like Greek life, honors houses, and substance free living, colleges often take a "pass" to allow these experiences instead to shape the student life outcomes.

The most neglectful student life plans also fail to account for the emergence of off-campus "shadow houses," often rented by upper division students with the worst of these creating an environment comparable to a 21st Century "Animal House." College leadership's failure to support and work with student life staff, athletic directors, town officials, and their own faculty and students to get at the worst of these examples further exacerbate the alcohol and sexual abuse problems faced by many colleges and universities today.

Let's assume that higher education leadership understands and values the social contract it has with college students. Why, then, must it be in the "hotel business" to execute the contract?

Campus officials offer a number of reasons. First, colleges need revenue, especially from fully depreciated dorms, to balance their books. Second, incorporating dormitory facilities into the issuance of new bonds creates a revenue stream through student fees to pay for bonds, a portion of which can also be directed toward other uses. Third, colleges often operate in a competitive environment. And finally, higher education administrators fight turf wars to retain "control," however they define it.

If American higher education transforms itself to build off current operational strategies, it is likely that the first transformative moments will occur in areas like housing. For colleges that differentiate themselves through residential learning, how they build, support, and depreciate their housing will directly impact the quality of the education that they offer to prospective students. With an eye to how their position in the hotel business is affecting their level of and capacity to issue debt, these institutions must better integrate their student life and housing options.

To do so, they must first clean up the worst excesses ignored or unattended to in their social contract with their students. The contract must be a "cradle through career" deal struck with students, including those older students seeking more independence. And finally, American colleges and universities must look for ways to reduce their rising debt levels, through better attention to avoiding unneeded competitive consumerism as they address larger strategic questions like their continued role as hotel managers.

Colleges and universities are centers of education --transformative incubators of a productive workforce - but hardly isolated cities upon a hill. It's far less important to worry about who owns the building than to mandate how the environment supports strong and lasting student/faculty relationships.