From whatever age I first started thinking about colleges, I assumed that I would attend a residential one. That's what a real college was.
I don't know where I got this idea. My parents were first-generation college students, and though my mother did live in the dorms--she grew up in the middle of the desert, so residency was the only option--my father lived at home and commuted to the local Cal State. Almost none of my aunts and uncles had a traditional residential experience, either; when I was a child, some of them were either returning to college or still finishing up their long-deferred degrees.
Still, I imagine my parents' upward mobility had something to do with my assumptions, as did the larger milieu of my peers: I knew of people who lived at home while commuting to the U.W. (about a 30-minute drive, if traffic was good), but everyone I was friends with lived on or near campus. We all went away to college, even if "away" just meant across the bridge to Seattle.
The only person I remember explicitly touting the benefits of residential education was my beloved high school English teacher, who mentioned it in the context of the monomyth, or hero's journey. As I recall, while describing the importance of departure to the hero's growth and initiation, she mentioned that--ideally--college provided a modern equivalent, and that's why it was better to go away if one could: to get full separation from one's origins and focus exclusively on intellectual and personal growth.
I did my Ph.D. where I went to college, a place where "living off campus" was presented as undermining the very foundations of undergraduate life--even though it usually meant living a couple of blocks away, in a university-owned apartment building. But since getting my degree I've taught exclusively at public colleges and universities with plenty of commuter students; at my current job, they're the majority. And I love those students and the energy they bring: it turns out that just as I prefer living in a city, I enjoy teaching in one. Students don't show up to my classes in pyjamas; they're more likely to show up in a uniform or work clothes. They have a focus, drive, and sense of responsibility that's not quite the same as, but not really so different from, what I experienced with students at my more elite alma mater.
I like my job and I've never specifically wanted to teach at a more residential institution. Still, I guess a tiny corner of my brain has continued to assume that, on balance, a residential college experience was better for students. So over the years I've considered it good news when I learned that my employer was building more campus housing, or that a larger percentage of the student body was residential, or whatever.
Lately, though, I've been wondering. Because I see a lot of transfer students, I hear bits and pieces about why they transferred and where else they attended. And in recent years, I've had several students mention, specifically, how much they disliked living on campus at this or that big state university or small private college. Some criticize the party or sports culture, or a remote location; others describe the homogeneity of the student population, or the fact that their peers seemed lazy or bored or entitled. More than one student seemed surprised that no one seemed to work or even want a job.
And this is something that we kinda know about residential college life, but don't always acknowledge: the culture of a place can be toxic or just a bad fit, and when you're in an enclosed, self-contained space--whether it's a small liberal arts college or a big land-grant university--it can be hard to escape the local mores or to find your people. (I'm reminded of a recent book arguing that first-generation college students often have worse educational outcomes at moderately-selective schools than less-selective ones.) But I wonder whether it's not just that some residential colleges foster bad peer-group behavior or are a bad fit for particular students. To say that would still be to imply that, when done right, the residential experience is always better.
Increasingly, I'm not so sure. I'm beginning to suspect that there may be personality types that prefer a college experience that is enmeshed within a fuller, larger life. I'm struck, for example, by the number of students I have--and I mean traditionally college-aged students, without dependents--who not only work multiple jobs but are also double-majoring or carrying multiple minors and who say, cheerfully, that they prefer to be busy. If I'd only heard this once or twice, I'd have assumed that my students were just putting a good face on necessity; I've certainly seen students suffer when they have too many responsibilities or a work schedule that's out of their control. But after hearing it enough, and from students who are successful rather than struggling, I think it's worth taking them seriously.
My students have initiative in spades. Some of them are here because they wanted to get the hell out of a rural or suburban community; they moved downtown, found apartments and jobs, and got themselves enrolled--with varying degrees of parental involvement. At least two of my current students moved here alone from out of state. Even those living with their parents are often more independent than their peers at residential campuses: they have jobs, pay many of their own bills, and can navigate a major city, nevermind an exasperating institutional bureaucracy, on their own.
One can see all these things as compensatory benefits: as the upside of not being "able" not to work or not to live at home. But what if we saw them as goods in themselves? What if we saw commuter schools not as fallbacks, or as the best options under certain circumstances, but as actively attractive to a busy, energetic, can-do student population?
Most of us believe that our students are our institution's greatest asset. Maybe their choices tell us how we should value ourselves, too.