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Friday, January 23, 2015

Is the Residency Requirement relevant any more?

Boxed in...
On the first night of the new year for the Class of 1996, my mentor and colleague, Coleen Grissom, announced an important change. With great enthusiasm and carefully chosen language, Dean Grissom told the new students they were the fortunate ones to be the first beneficiaries of the new three-year residency requirement (rather than two). Of course they didn't really buy it, but I am not sure she did either. Some twenty years later I share the ambivalence.

President Calgaard, the driving force behind this, once told me he didn't really care if students wanted to move off for their senior year. The kind of campus community he envisioned was residential and the best way to ensure it was to require it. It made sense. There were few apartment complexes near or around Trinity. Many of our students had grown up living with siblings. Community was defined differently before technology changed the nature of it.

Today, privacy is at a premium. Having a roommate in the first year is usually more good than bad. Choosing one for the second year follows naturally. By the third year, students -- who willfully signed on to the residency requirement as high school seniors -- often come to resent it.

Here are some of the problems, simplistically stated:

1. Privacy
Students tire of conforming to the schedules of roommates. While there are social benefits to roommates and suite life, there is simply no place to escape to for self-determined sleep, study, and I dare say, sex.

2. The Meal Plan
The quality, variety and value of our meal program is exceptional. I honestly believe that. But, for some students, meal programs lose their luster after two or three years. (Sooner for some!) Students who haven't tasted their own cooking, cleaned their own kitchens, or shopped regularly for groceries, are eager to prepare their own meals. Not having that option becomes a real point of conflict. And it is very real. For many this is about freedom, flexibility, value (Ramen Noodles), and health.

3. Cost
When we last compared housing rates off campus, with utilities, transportation, and other hidden costs including loss of time, we were generally comparable. But that case is getting more difficult to make, especially compared to apartments with kitchens and bedrooms. Students see value in amenities and double rooms can't compete with spacious apartments and neighbors named Hutch and Roxy.

4. Campus Apartments
More and more, students are being offered campus apartments at other residential campuses, often with full or double size beds in single rooms. Many can sign up for these by their second year. We have no apartments here, and by year-three, students want those living options.

5. Paternalism
The word "requirement" doesn't sit well with students these days. It implies that something is required. Ahem.

The idea of a residential campus has been romanticized by some over the years. It is noble, to be sure. There are many benefits to living on campus. But I would much rather have students clamoring to stay on campus than fighting to get away. We should rise to that challenge. Some people aren't made for dorm living. Like some couples who have parted ways, sometimes it is better for everyone (in this case, the student and the institution) to get some space. Some students don't care about laws and policies related to alcohol and drugs. The staff would rather not have to enforce those policies either. The resulting tension, again, is harmful to the University and the students.

The numbers show that most want to stay on their junior year and about a quarter decide to stay on their senior year. Most like the convenience, the energy, the engagement, and the proximity. Many who move off miss those things and acknowledge the deficit in the trade-off. They report feeling disconnected. Others love their freedom.

Campus apartments can be costly to build and with so many options near campus, may not be necessary. Another option is to offer single rooms -- for busy students who could reap the benefits of life on campus while at the same time having more autonomy and privacy. A promising step in that direction is the current renovation of North Hall, configured for singles. Though the rooms will be small, for many of our busy juniors and seniors that won't matter, they don't spend much time in those spaces anyways. If this renovation is well-received, then subsequent upper-class halls slated for renovations will be reconfigured accordingly.

The most disheartening aspect about the requirement is that students who want to leave a year early feel trapped and are often negative about their experiences and the institution. The requirement creates significant tension between the students and the Residential Life staff and me. Lost on most is that this is an institutional requirement. But the staff who must uphold it are routinely being challenged, leaving students and parents angry and frustrated. Indeed, the staff has learned that offering exceptions leads to charges of unfairness and inconsistency. Every student feels as though his or her situation is unique. To each of them it is. But students demand consistency. Why shouldn't they? You can see the conundrum for the staff. Listening and treating each case with care, and making exceptions, invites an opening of the proverbial flood gates. Not entertaining requests because they most always end in "no" is no more palatable. Being at odds with our students over an institutional edict affects the effectiveness of the very staff members who are working to support and advocate for them. 

What is more, many students think this is about the money. While that is a contributing factor for some (more revenue creates more for initiatives for students or for controlling costs), it isn't the only factor. Many people who support this requirement believe this is our identity and that it is good.

There has to be a better way. The institution likely won't consider apartments that may be too costly right now. Hopefully the single rooms prove to be attractive options for students. Maybe we simply entertain requests more liberally. In the end, there a number of issues worth re-visiting. We would likely better serve students and enhance the way they feel about the institution by discussing this in more detail. What made sense twenty years ago may no longer fit.

Please comment and take the poll!


Anonymous said...

I understand your point that campus dining isnt that bad, but I would also challenge you to find a single vegetable on campus after 8pm to understand the frustration of being a vegetarian forced to have a meal plan.

David Tuttle said...

Thanks for reading me and for your comment. It is an interesting point. It got me thinking that I don't ever eat vegetables after 8 pm and I am a vegetarian. I prefer pizza and cereal late night. I'm not sure many campuses our size offer vegetables after the main dining hall closes. But that would be a crummy reason not to. Starting next year we will have a Freshiis on campus in the Commons and I hope it will be open late night. It might be perfect for you!!

Unknown said...

As a Trinity alumni (and fellow vegetarian!), I absolutely loved living on campus all 4 years at Trinity. It allows for a special sense of community that makes Trinity unique and enhances the bond of the Trinity family. Don't get rid of the residency requirement!