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What's the difference between a dorm and a "college house"?
By Eric Goldstein
THE ANNOUNCEMENT this fall of a new college-house system at Penn, in which all campus residences are to be converted into so-called "college houses" ["Gazetteer," November] has generated a lot of hoopla on campus, but it is difficult to see why. The difference appears to be mostly semantic. Though administrators are making a big deal about the plan, nothing much seems to be changing.
The intent of the plan is to create smaller communities within the often overwhelming Penn campus. This will be accomplished by having common dining areas, mixing upperclassmen with underclassmen and providing auxiliary services, such as tutoring and computer aid. However, the proponents of the plan are quick to stress that dining with housemates will be completely voluntary, as will be any special programming. And they also point out that the Quadrangle will remain a predominantly freshman residence, while the high-rises will continue to be the domain of mostly sophomores, juniors, and seniors.
Administrators seem so intent on accommodating students who find comfort in the status quo that they have neglected to develop a plan that will result in tangible change for undergraduates. The University's goals are admirable. The high-rises discourage, rather than promote, interaction among neighbors. Because students are provided with all of the essentials of apartment-style living, including full bathrooms, kitchens, and living rooms, students have little incentive to venture out to the common areas on every other floor. There is more interaction on the high-rise elevators than in the common rooms.
Often, the residential adviser system fails to address these problems. It is not uncommon for a high-rise resident to go an entire year without ever attending a hall meeting or even meeting the floor's resident adviser. What little activity money is available for hall programming is typically wiped out after a few pizzas and a two-liter bottle of Coke.
For all of their faults, though, the high-rises do serve a purpose. Many students are not interested in "community living" after freshman year. If not for the high-rises, many students who prefer apartment-style living would choose to move off campus. And the high-rise rooms are in general just as nice, if not nicer, than the typical off-campus apartment. Although it is not politically correct to admit it, many students actually enjoy their high-rise experiences.
"Integrating" the Quad by inviting upperclassmen back introduces even more concerns. The Quad is unique precisely because it is a freshman dorm. It is a place freshmen can make new friends and help each other adjust to college life. For all intents and purposes, the Quad already achieves many of the goals of the college houses. It creates small communities, many of which stay together for all four years of college, and provides an internal support system and often specialized programming. Bringing any substantial number of upperclassmen into the mix can only tamper with a special Penn experience.
Although the University's plans are admirable, they fail to consider one key factor -- the high-rises are not conducive to a college-house program. Building a college-house system around Penn's current dormitories is like trying to build a car on one axle.
Unlike the college house system at Yale, which has become ingrained in the very fabric of student life there, the Penn plan will require a significant change in student behavior and opinion. What administrators have failed to realize is that Penn's apartment-style housing is just as strong an element of campus life here as college houses are at Yale. That is not to say that Penn's system can't be improved, but neither is wholesale change necessary.
The bottom line is that students who don't want to change won't have to. But if enough students prefer the current system and choose not to get involved, then what is the point?
Given the University's limited resources, the money being funneled into the college houses could do more to improve the academic life on campus by going directly into academic programs. The idea behind the college-house system is admirable. But short of demolishing the high-rises and starting from scratch, the program will have little real effect on the lives of Penn undergraduates.
Eric Goldstein is a senior entrepreneurial and multinational management major from Sewickley Heights, Pennsylvania, and executive editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian.
Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 12/10/97