Apartment-style dorm rooms are the Hot New Thing at some colleges nowadays. Single rooms instead of doubles or even quads, exterior doors instead of crowded hallways, private bathrooms instead of gang showers and those icky shared toilets, even mini-kitchens instead of the noisy dining hall – all have an undeniable appeal for incoming freshmen looking to maximize the more adult features of undergraduate life.
Many contemporary students grew up with their own bedrooms, and perhaps even their own bathrooms, and may recoil from sharing their personal spaces with that mysterious stranger, the roommate or hallmate. So colleges and universities, particularly sensitive to the preferences of full-pay students, are starting to move away from traditional long-hallway dorms to more individualized rooms, some with generous amenities. Prospective students seem to love the idea.
They shouldn’t. Apartment-style dorms can be deadly for a student’s long-term success in college, isolating newcomers at exactly the moment when they most need to be reaching out and making friends. Early connections, made when students are most available for meeting new people, are a crucial first step to the community integration that scholars have long known is crucial to student retention and success. When my former student and current doctoral student Chris Takacs and I followed nearly 100 students throughout college and afterward in researching our book How College Works, we found that “high contact” settings such as traditional dorms – featuring long hallways, shared rooms and common bathrooms, where students have no choice but to meet lots of peers – are the single best device for helping new students to solve their biggest problem: finding friends. And dorms are especially valuable for students who are shy, unusually nervous about coming to college, or otherwise feel excluded. Finding one buddy to pal around with is all that’s needed to ensure a positive first-year experience.
Of course dorms aren’t the only place that students make friends. Extracurricular groups that convene frequently and include a couple dozen members are a great source of potential companions (smaller groups don’t work as well). Greek letter societies, sports teams, campus newspapers, and larger musical ensembles serve the purpose. At the college we studied, the choir -- with over 70 members, a dynamic director, rigorous auditions, and frequent rehearsals and performances -- offered a marvelous opportunity for its members to form close bonds, which in turn helped them become, in our network analysis, some of the most socially connected students at the college.
Still, dormitories are different: they are open to everyone. You don’t need any special talent or athletic ability or an outgoing personality to live in a dorm and thus benefit from meeting a variety of peers. Dorms aren’t exclusive. After that first year, a student will likely have made friends and found his or her niche, but until then, broad exposure seems to be the best pathway to success.
So how can admissions and student affairs staff convince incoming students to live in those overcrowded rooms and share their showers with people they may not even like? And how can college presidents be convinced not to engage in the housing arms race of catering to the students who seem to favor luxury and privacy over the group experience? Apartments are appealing, after all, and colleges need the money that full-pay students will pony up for their own little pad.
Try anything. Tell students the odds are they will have a more successful and happy first year at college in this kind of dorm. If you have any money, recarpet the long hallways, improve the shared bathrooms, and upgrade the dorm rooms in that big old building. Try to keep the showers clean. If the rooms can’t be quads, at least make them doubles; if they are singles, at least keep the common bathrooms. Point out that you charge less for the old-fashioned dorm rooms.
Tell prospective students that they’ll meet more people in a dorm; give dorm residents priority in getting sophomore housing. Focus your programming efforts on the early part of the first year, when students are socially available – and often looking for friends. Remember, when more students have repeated, obligatory exposure to a sizable group of other students, more of them will find the one or two buddies who see them through their first year.
Ten years ago this August my wife and I drove our youngest daughter Rebecca down to New York City, to help her move into a freshman dorm at Fordham University. We arrived amid a sea of parents, siblings, RAs, and energetic young women hauling those loaded duffel bags and laundry baskets up big institutional stairwells to the fourth floor. The scene at the top was unforgettable: scores of people, crowded into a long hallway, with 20 rooms – all quads, bunk beds stacked up – lined down a long hallway, girls laughing and talking, helping each other out, and making introductions all around. A young faculty couple with a baby lived in an apartment at the end of the hall, and a priest had a room on the floor below. It was a scene of gentle pandemonium.
Becca stood there, her mouth hanging open in amazement, not yet realizing that four of her best friends in life would come from that hallway. My wife and I, both professors, smiled at each other. “This,” we thought, “will be great.”
Daniel F. Chambliss is Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College. He is the author, with Christopher G. Takacs, ofHow College Works(Harvard University Press).
In his commencement speech last weekend at Haverford College, the former president of Princeton University, William G. Bowen, attempted to shame some students at Haverford for challenging the invitation to the former University of California at Berkeley Chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, to deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree. Bowen did not scold us for protesting, but rather for protesting incorrectly. As a new alumnus involved in those efforts as a then-senior at Haverford, I stand by our actions. Bowen should too.
In his much-discussed commencement speech, Bowen said, “Let me be clear at the outset that I am not judging the controversy over Bob Birgeneau’s handling of unrest at Berkeley. I have neither the facts nor the inclination to do so.” And yet, Bowen did feel that he had the facts and the inclination to address our methods of challenging Birgeneau.
On November 9, 2011, while Birgeneau was still chancellor, police beat and injured Occupy Cal protesters at Berkeley. Birgeneau supported UC Berkeley police in the use of extreme force against nonviolent protesters, asserted that linking arms is not a form of nonviolent protest, and suggested that the protesters got exactly what they were looking for. While Birgeneau did eventually apologize and claim to accept responsibility for the actions of his police, it reads like a half-hearted apology and does not address his point about protesters being “not nonviolent,” and the report he commissioned about the incident notes that not enough steps have been taken to make sure that such an attack does not happen again. Birgeneau’s role in and response to these protests do not fit with Haverford’s values expressed values of mutual trust, concern and respect.
I and other students and faculty were deeply disturbed by those beatings as well as Birgeneau’s response to them. We questioned the wisdom of awarding an honorary degree to Birgeneau at this time, unless he could show us that he was working to make amends. We decided to write Birgeneau a letter.
We wrote to him, “When trust is violated in our community, we seek to restore our bonds through restorative, not punitive, processes. Restoration involves a full accounting of one’s violation, and, ultimately, we return to wholeness through action. In the spirit of these restorative processes, before you are honored by our community, we believe it is necessary for you to do more than offer a brief apology. We ask you to use this opportunity to take responsibility for the events of November 9th not just by apologizing with words, but by taking substantive action.”
Our letter has been characterized in the press as a list of demands, but what we were trying to do was suggest ways that Bowen could make amends. If Birgeneau did not do at least some of the things we urged him to do or show us that our claims against him were mistaken, we, with no power to make an actual decision on the matter, would ask Haverford to rescind his invitation.
It became clear that Birgeneau would not do as we had hoped and Haverford would not rescind his invitation, and we began plans to protest during commencement. The protest would be nondisruptive and largely symbolic. We did not want to ruin commencement for our families or other students. We ordered buttons that said, “Ask me about Robert Birgeneau” and considered turning our backs when Birgeneau spoke. Before we could decide on a final plan of action, Birgeneau withdrew from the event.
Bowen went on to call us “arrogant” and “immature” for our methods: Writing Birgeneau a letter to suggest possible remedies to our concerns about his receipt of an honorary degree, noting in the letter that we were considering asking Haverford College to rescind his invitation, and telling Haverford College President Dan Weiss and the press that some students and faculty would protest at commencement in a nondisruptive manner if Birgeneau did receive an honorary degree.
Bowen cited two shining examples of “better” protests of honorary degree recipients. First was the case of George Shultz at Princeton in 1973, when Shultz was President Nixon’s secretary of the treasury. The other was President Obama at the University of Notre Dame in 2009.
As Bowen tells it, many Princeton students objected to having Shultz as that year’s honorary degree recipient, and they expressed that view during commencement by standing up and turning their backs to Shultz. A nonviolent, silent protest. Bowen concluded, “Princeton emerged from this mini-controversy more committed than ever to honoring both the right to protest in proper ways and the accomplishments of someone with whose views on some issues many disagreed.”
But that’s not the whole story. Like Haverford students, many Princeton students also wanted to rescind their speaker’s invitation. They held a vote of the student body, with over 60 percent of voters saying that they did not want to hear Shultz at commencement. Representatives of the student body took that vote to Princeton’s Board of Trustees and urged them to reconsider the invitation. Clearly, students only protested as a last resort when the university declined their request to rescind Shultz’s invitation.
In the case of Notre Dame, Bowen focused on how a retired president of the university spoke out in defense of awarding Obama an honorary degree and noted that Notre Dame showed itself to be a place where people could “discuss controversial issues and learn from each other.” There, the majority of protesters were not students or faculty. Most students were supportive of Obama’s presence. The administration sided with the will of the students, and some of the minority who disagreed disrupted the ceremony with heckling.
At Haverford, students were not in consensus on Birgeneau’s invitation (we try to do things by consensus at Haverford). Our president held an open forum where over 100 people from all sides came together to peacefully discuss the Birgeneau controversy with one another, and those of us who disagreed with the invitation promised not to disrupt the ceremony. The situations at Notre Dame and Haverford are apples and oranges, and I can’t figure out why Bowen brought up Notre Dame in contrast to Haverford except to applaud a case where protesters were unsuccessful.
Bowen seems to have a selective memory. Our situation was quite different from Notre Dame’s, and we acted essentially the same as students and faculty at Princeton, except we gave Birgeneau a chance to prove us wrong before condemning him, we never ended up asking Haverford to rescind Birgeneau’s invitation and we did not have the chance to protest silently because Birgeneau decided not to show up.
Bowen misses the point of commencement protests: Honorary degrees are essentially awards, and commencement protests are about asking that the award go to someone who deserves it. We hoped that either Birgeneau would show us he was worthy of receiving an honorary degree, or that he would not receive one. Our goals were to defend the honor of Haverford College and act in solidarity with the Occupy Cal protesters. Protesting during commencement itself was a last resort to achieve just one of those goals.
Dr. Bowen, where did we go wrong? Is it our success that offends you? Perhaps you would have been happier with our methods if we had failed.
Michael Rushmore is a recent graduate of Haverford College.
Last week, the Obama administration released an important report, “Not Alone,” addressing the daunting problem of sexual assault on college campuses.
The report was accompanied by an extensive set of helpful questions and answers to guide colleges and universities in compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the law that provides the legal framework for oversight of how colleges and universities assure that all students are free from sexual harassment and assault. It was also accompanied by an advance summary of a systematic review of the literature on primary prevention strategies for reducing sexual violence conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As a public health physician, I was surprised and disappointed that the word “alcohol” literally does not appear anywhere in the chapter on prevention. And in fact the word occurs only once in the text, in a section referring to future online technical assistance from the Justice Department.
To the administration’s credit, links to reports and guidance related to college drinking were included in the excellent, comprehensive “Not Alone” webpage and within the preliminary CDC report.
Studies suggest that at least half of all sexual assaults on college campuses involve the use of alcohol. I wonder if the administration chose to ignore in its report this important and common link in the chain of causal and correlated factors that often leads to sexual assault because officials were concerned that merely noting the association might lead to unfair blaming of the survivors of sexual assault when they have consumed alcohol or other drugs.
While I applaud the sensitivity to the tendency by some to wrongly blame survivors of sexual assaults when they have been drinking, omitting any discussion of the admittedly complicated issue was a serious mistake if we hope that the report prompts colleges and universities to use every possible avenue of intervention to prevent sexual assault on our campuses.
When the college that I lead began to address this issue, specialists in the prevention of sexual assault on college campuses were very blunt in their direction to us: They told us that we would never address the problem unless we also addressed the issue of excessive drinking. Our student leaders echoed that conclusion as they took a leading role in developing new initiatives to reduce sexual violence among our students. For example, our students suggested that we create an alcohol-free space where students can linger for food and conversation after parties end. This provides students with an opportunity to “disengage” from the party, as well as time that is helpful in making good decisions.
The omission in the report is especially surprising because the federal government’s own National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which I had the privilege of directing when I worked at the National Institutes of Health, has devoted significant resources to build the evidence base to help colleges reduce the human costs of excessive drinking on campuses. Many of these resources are readily available at www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov.
The inclusion of the word “first” in the title of the week’s report suggests that there will be other reports. I am optimistic that future reports that address sexual assault will take on the important and complicated issue of excessive drinking and drug use as one part of this deeply troubling issue.
Raynard S. Kington is president of Grinnell College. Before coming to Grinnell in 2010, he served in a range of positions at the National Institutes of Health, including principal deputy director and acting director, NIH associate director for behavioral and social sciences research, and acting director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Over the past couple of decades, researchers have uncovered all sorts of ways in which certain types of students experience college differently. Racial and ethnic minority, international, LGBTQ, first-generation, lower SES, and even politically conservative students encounter marginalizing experiences that can undercut the quality of their education.
Interestingly, researchers examining systemic differences in the ways that students experience college have spent most of their energy parsing differences between students’ demographic traits. By contrast, far fewer studies have explored whether certain personality traits might disadvantage specific groups of students, or from the perspective of improving the quality of a college experience, if the way that a college experience is constructed advantages certain personality traits. As a small residential liberal arts college that prides itself on the quality of its student-faculty and student-staff interactions, my institution has a vested interest in such questions.
Over the past several years, we have built a series of student surveys that allow us to track and link data from students over the course of their college career. During the freshman year, we give a pre-college survey that asks students about dispositions that might affect their initial success, a midyear survey that asks freshmen about their academic and social acclimation, and an end-of-the-year survey that focuses on first-year learning and growth.
Two items in the midyear freshman survey address key aspects of academic and social acclimation. One question asks, "How many of your professors did you talk to outside of class about how to best succeed in their course?" The other question asks students if they have "begun participating in at least one student organization” that interests them. National research and our own data have shown that both of these behaviors are important for our students’ success.
In previous years, all we could do was demonstrate a relationship between these behaviors and a sense of belonging on campus. But now that we can link our pre-college survey with the midyear freshman survey, we can add a potentially important personal disposition to the mix. This measure is a three-item scale called Comfort with Social Interaction that asks students to indicate their level of comfort meeting new people and interacting in a large, unfamiliar social setting. Thus, the goal of this analysis was to see if, even after accounting for acclimating behaviors (talking to professors and joining student organizations), this personal disposition continued to impact students' sense of belonging on campus.
First, we found that the Comfort with Social Interaction scale produced a significant positive effect (in a statistical sense) on the number of professors that freshmen talked to outside of class. In other words, students who were less comfortable with social interaction were significantly less likely to talk to their professors than were those students with high Comfort with Social Interaction scores. This finding held even after controlling for gender (because we know that female students tend to seek out professors more often than their male counterparts).
Second, we found that the Comfort with Social Interaction scale also produced a statistically significant positive effect on the likelihood that a student had begun participating in a student organization that interested them. Put another way, students with lower Comfort with Social Interaction scores were significantly less likely to have begun participating in a student organization that interested them.
Finally, we investigated whether the Comfort with Social Interaction score might influence a freshman's sense of belonging on campus even after taking into account whether or not he or she had joined a student organization. Sure enough, even after accounting for joining a student organization, the Comfort with Social Interaction produced a statistically significant positive effect. In fact, our analysis found that the degree of discomfort with social interaction (i.e., a low score on the above scale) could ultimately produce a larger negative impact on a sense of belonging on campus than simply not belonging to a student group.
Both of these findings hold important implications. The impact of a student's comfort with social interaction on the number of professors he or she talked to outside of class is important because it suggests that simply inviting students to faculty office hours may not be enough, especially if the students who might benefit most from such interactions are also more introverted.
This may well mean that those students need some incentive to initiate such an interaction and "break the ice." Although we often infer that students who don't come to office hours are less engaged in the course, this may well be a mistaken conclusion. In addition, this finding might even translate to the nature of student participation in class discussion.
Indeed, there seem to be multiple instances in our interactions with freshmen where we may unintentionally pathologize introversion. In talking about these findings with some of our student affairs staff members, they reflected on how often residence hall employees or peer mentors might worry about students because they don't see them as often hanging out in common areas.
While it is possible that these students may be struggling, it is also true that they may simply prefer environments with fewer people. Pressing these students to participate in activities that aren't comfortable for them may well simply contribute to a sense of isolation and marginalization. It may even be that our goals for freshman orientation don't fully take into account the needs of our more introverted students at a time when they probably need us to show that we welcome them into our community on their own terms.
Too often first-year fall orientations are designed to acclimate and integrate through a cacophony of social events, activity fairs, and big tent welcome parties. Of course we can point to an overwhelming body of research touting the importance of involvement and engagement. But the way that we try to make this involvement happen across all students no matter their extroverted or introverted nature my well hinder as much as it helps, even though our hearts are surely in the right place.
Collectively, these findings have made a number of us at my institution wonder if our efforts to encourage student involvement and embrace an active learning environment may have unintentionally created subtle yet real obstacles for our more introverted students. While this evidence is nowhere close to smoking-gun proof of a cultural squeeze that pervasively excludes introverted students, it suggests that we might be smart to take a hard look at our own approach.
Based on your own observations or experience, might you or your institution subtly privilege extroverts? What do we do to make sure that more introverted students have the support necessary to acclimate -- even if it takes them longer to do so? How might we make our community more welcoming to all students regardless of their comfort with social interactions? Like a lot of things in higher ed, helping this students succeed starts with recognizing that there might be a problem.
Mark Salisbury is director of institutional research and assessment at Augustana College, in Illinois. He blogs at Delicious Ambiguity.