I remember when my college made the dorms coed. A recent study, published today in the Journal of American College Health, prompted me to think about that change again. Those coed dorms really might have more of an impact than we once believed.
It was winter quarter – my sophomore year, I think – when the administration decided to allow the switch. A variety of living situations were arranged. One dorm remained all-male, another all female. Within the remaining dorms, all-male and all-female floors alternated with several co-ed by room (two men in one room, two women in the next) floors. Almost everyone on campus moved one Minnesota February weekend.
Prior to that time, the philosophy of in loco parentis was strong on college campuses – that the college would set the standards and determine acceptable behavior in the college just as parents would in the home. On our campus, women were allowed in the men’s dorms on Friday evening and one afternoon a week – I forget which one. Men were allowed in women’s dorms on Saturday evenings and one afternoon. Visitation in opposite sex dorms on Sunday afternoon was permitted. In addition, women had to sign-out if they would be coming in later than 10 p.m., and the doors were locked at midnight. People who came in late lost points and could be grounded if they lost all of their points in a year.
All of that changed in a single weekend: the hours, the sign-out, the disciplinary apparatus. At the time, other people our age were going off to war in Vietnam; students argued that people old enough to die for their country were also mature enough to set their own standards. Most colleges include community standards in their Codes of Conduct: still presented by the college but defensible as necessary for the common good.
Life was certainly different in the coed dorms. The dorms were more social – there were more parties, more hanging out in the lounges,probably somewhat less work getting done. At the time, I didn’t think much of it.
The study published today has some startling statistics. A mind-boggling 42% of students who live in coed housing reported binge drinking once a week or more. Of the small group in gender-specific housing – most assigned there by housing lotteries, not by choice – the proportion is small, only 18%. (Seemingly fraternity and sorority students binge drink at a rate well beyond 42% – wow!).
I’ve seen the negative effects of that kind of drinking on students at my own college’s campus – and the trail of relationship chaos, failed courses, depression it leaves in its wake. If – as the study indicates – the selection effect accounts for only a small portion of the difference between the gender-specific and coed dorms, perhaps colleges might want to consider re-instituting some of those old practices. Ones that do would probably be less popular in the recruitment phase, but might make up for it in better retention of the students who do come to college.
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