The residential college system is often said to be the backbone of Yale. The population of each college is handpicked to reflect the composition of the entire student body, college deans and masters act as parental figures to many Yalies, and the Tyng Cup is one of the most coveted objects on campus.

The college system, which began more than 800 years ago at Oxford and Cambridge, has been adopted and adapted by universities across the United States. While Yale may be closest to the original college system, students at Princeton and Harvard universities also use variations on the Oxbridge model. With room draws in full swing, Yalies are experiencing some of the usual anxieties associated with deciding on rooming. Meanwhile, Princeton and Harvard are undergoing major changes that have left students and administrators at those schools wondering what the ideal system is.

Is bigger better?

While Princetonians, like Yalies, live in residential colleges, Princeton’s colleges have been fundamentally different from Yale’s — until now.

Princeton has five residential colleges, each of which is home only to freshmen and sophomores. Each college has a master and dean, whose duties are similar to those of their counterparts at Yale. Most students still live on campus in the junior and senior years, but they enter into a draw for dormitory housing similar to that found at schools without a residential college system, and they are no longer affiliated with their colleges as upperclassmen.

Mathey College Master Antoine Kahn said Princeton’s residential colleges are successful in their mission of easing students into university life.

“I think the system that Princeton has put together over the past 23 or 24 years or so is quite extraordinary and quite unique in the level of support we provide to freshmen and sophomores,” he said. “This whole structure is there essentially to take care of the students.”

Princeton uses a system of “resident college advisers” to support underclassmen. RCAs are juniors and seniors who live in the colleges and are in charge of a group of about 15 freshmen and 15 sophomores, Kahn said.

Many Princeton students said they are happy with their current housing situation. Sophomore Brandon Bierlein said the residential college serves to unify members of the student body who otherwise might not interact.

“I think it’s a good way to bring a lot of people from different parts of the university together for the first couple years,” he said.

But Princeton’s planned overhaul of the residential college system is drawing more mixed reactions from students. In 2007, Princeton will open a new residential college, Whitman College, named for Princeton alumna and eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who donated $30 million toward its construction. Unlike the existing colleges, Whitman will be a four-year college that will house juniors and seniors as well as freshmen and sophomores. After renovation, two existing colleges will join Whitman as four-year colleges in 2007 and 2009, while the other three colleges will remain two-year. After the four-year colleges are phased in, all Princeton students, whether they live in their college or not, will remain affiliated with their college for all four years. Princeton is accompanying the residential changes with a student-body increase of 500 by 2012.

Yale Dean of Administrative Affairs John Meeske said the changes, which he said are likely inspired by Yale’s system, will be a good development for Princeton. But the dramatic transition may prove difficult, he said.

“Any change is hard,” Meeske said. “If we tried to change anything at Yale, I’m sure there’d be massive upset. I’m very glad that we have a very good system in many ways.”

Bierlein said he is strongly opposed to the new residential college system. He said he fears that a system of four-year colleges will lead to the demise of Princeton’s traditional eating clubs. About 75 percent of Princeton students join an eating club at the end of the sophomore year, Bierlein said, and if more students choose to live in the colleges, they may be less likely to join eating clubs.

“The eating club system — and this may be stubborn reactionism — is unique at Princeton,” he said. “I think the university wants to institute a residential college system like Yale, but the fact is it was instituted too late and the eating clubs prevail.”

But Kahn said he thinks the introduction of four-year residential colleges is unlikely to have an impact on the school’s eating clubs. The number of upperclassmen who will be able to live in the residential colleges will be approximately the same as the number of new upperclassmen added to the student population by the planned increase, Kahn said.

“The student pool will actually increase, so I cannot see how this whole thing will have an effect on the eating clubs,” he said. “What we are providing is another opportunity for students who are not interested in the eating clubs.”

Bierlein said he worries that the institution of four-year colleges will further stratify an already divided school.

“Simply put, four-year colleges are going to be cheaper than eating clubs, so my concern is that those students who feel financial constraints will join the four-year colleges while those who are a little better off will join eating clubs,” he said. “I think Princeton has enough divides along those lines that we don’t need something endorsed by the university to reinforce those.”

The Princeton student government is currently trying to pass a resolution in favor of extending additional financial aid to students who want to join eating clubs. Sophomore class president Grant Gittlin said he hopes students will be able to make the choice of whether or not to live in the new colleges based on social and not economic reasons.

Princeton sophomore Rohini Rao said that while she also worries about divisive economic issues, she thinks the four-year colleges will be good for housing and community at Princeton. Being affiliated with a residential college will make students feel more integrated into the college as a whole when they are upperclassmen, she said.

Still, Rao said she thinks the four-year colleges will never have the popularity they have at Yale because they will never be as prominent as the eating clubs.

“I don’t know if Princeton loves it, but the students love it,” she said. “It’s the place where the social life is, but that’s not going to be the case with a residential college.”

Mixing it up

Harvard’s network of 12 undergraduate houses is similar to Yale’s system of 12 residential colleges. The houses — each of which contains residences, a dining hall and a variety of other public spaces — are run by a House Master, who oversees administrative affairs, and a Senior Tutor, who performs duties analogous to those of a Yale Residential College Dean. Just as in Yale’s colleges, students’ academic advising and social lives are often centered in their houses, and Harvard’s undergraduates, like Yale’s, receive their diplomas in their houses.

But the major difference between the two systems, which has been debated by both universities’ administrators and students, is that while Yale freshmen arrive at school assigned to a residential college, Harvard students are not assigned to a house until their sophomore year.

Jay Harris, the master of Harvard’s Cabot House, said Harvard’s original reason for not assigning freshmen to a house “goes back to long before anyone’s memory.” After a formal reassessment of the system in 2004, Harris said he believes Harvard decided not to change its system for reasons of geography and history. Unlike the colleges at Yale, some of Harvard’s houses are quite far from the center of the College, and Harris said he does not believe that freshmen living in Harvard Yard would be able to take advantage of those houses’ resources even if they were assigned to them.

Harvard students are assigned to houses in up to eight-person blocking groups they form in March of their freshman year, and each blocking group is then assigned to a house by lottery. Every year, freshmen eagerly await their house assignments, which are given out in hand-delivered letters. The Harvard Class of 2009 received their house assignments last week.

Harris said Harvard also decided not to move to a system more akin to Yale’s because the administration worried that students might bristle at limits on their choice of blockmates.

“I think if [Yale students] never had it, they might not mind it,” he said.

Students at Harvard and Yale have varying opinions of their respective systems. Marisa Williamson, a sophomore at Harvard, said she would actually prefer Yale’s. Harvard’s system, she said, can sometimes lead to social difficulties in the sophomore year.

“What often happens is your group of friends changes — you might have a falling-out with a member of the group — and you find yourself stuck in a house, and that can be pretty stressful,” she said. “As we all probably experienced in high school, your groups of friends can be pretty fluid.”

Williamson said she thinks that if Harvard students were affiliated with a house from their freshman year on, they might make more of an attempt to get to know the people they would be living with for the next three years. As it is now, she said, the only people students initially know in their house may be the members of their blocking group.

Because of difficulties with her blocking group, Williamson is currently planning a transfer to another house, which she said is relatively easy to do at Harvard.

“Initially, I thought it was going to be a big terrible thing that I was the only one doing, but it turns out a lot of people do it,” she said. “But then the switch can be kind of hard because you don’t know what it’s like to live with people. You don’t know if living with a friend will change your friendship.”

Still, some Yale students said they might prefer Harvard’s system because their suitemate choices are not limited to people they are randomly placed with in their freshman year.

“I think that would’ve been really fun and would’ve made me more excited about the housing process,” Celeste Ballard ’08 said. “[Yale’s system] seems like sort of a struggle. It seems like a compromise for everyone.”

Williamson said she thinks recent changes in Harvard’s housing policies may make it easier for friends to live together. Last week, the Harvard Committee on House Life endorsed a plan that might allow students to live in mixed-sex rooms by fall 2007. The committee will soon create a task force to draft the guidelines for requesting mixed-sex housing.

Williamson said she thinks the new policy is likely to be a positive step for Harvard’s houses, giving students the option of rooming with close friends of the opposite sex.

But Harvard sophomore Amanda Kolb said she does not think mixed-sex housing will have a large effect on housing choices overall. Kolb said she personally does not plan to take advantage of the system, and that besides a few “standouts,” neither will many other Cantabs.

“I think a lot of people are happy with the roommates they have and are more likely to stick with that,” she said.

Meeske said mixed-sex housing has not been specifically discussed at Yale in many years, but he believes it may be the next step in the progression of Yale’s gender policies.

“It’s kind of hard to predict when this might happen, but I think it’s inevitable that we will certainly discuss it here,” he said. “Whether we will actually do it or when we will do it, I don’t know. … I think the one thing you can say is, it’s complicated.”