Yale’s residential college system is dying a slow and silent death, and nobody seems to notice or care.
According to a new Yale College Council report, 17 percent of undergraduates lived off campus last year. Yale’s budget assumes that only 11 percent will choose off-campus living arrangements, and the growing number of vacancies threatens to disturb the financial viability of the college system. Both the Yale College Dean’s Office and the YCC have separately identified this trend as a problem; neither has offered a serious solution.
For the last three years, I have lived on campus in Timothy Dwight College, often to the chagrin of my off-campus peers, who find my commitment to the residential college system quaint, like knowing all the lyrics to “Bright College Years.”
The purpose of the residential college system was never merely to provide housing. Its main purposes — a deep and lasting fidelity to one’s college, a respect for the challenges and benefits of communal living and a kind of residential republicanism — remained ambitious, at times even unrealistic. Yale students have, until the present moment, seen the advantages of the college system.
But the deeper cause of the present exodus isn’t students; it’s Yale’s mismanagement of a system that thrived and functioned for over 80 years.
The infrastructure problems facing campus in the 1920s that initially drove the University to establish the college system have returned with a vengeance. Administrators are again expressing concerns that the colleges have lost social cohesion; dining halls, gyms and laundry rooms are overcrowded; and today’s housing process splinters more friendships than it preserves.
Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on two new colleges may be a strong display of trust in the system’s future. Yet adding hundreds of new rooms when the University can’t fill the suites it already has seems like a clear case of misdirected resources.
Part of the problem is that the cost of living and eating at Yale is too high, and moving off campus offers students an alluring chance to save on housing and food. The YCC report notes that the high cost of the meal plan ($3,325 a semester) has made students feel that Yale Dining is a waste of money. Between their Blue State coffee and their unused breakfast swipe, most Yalies living on campus find themselves simultaneously pampered and overcharged.
Not to mention the annual housing process, which varies vastly across the colleges and is often a carnival of disappointment and administrative dysfunction. Between fears of annexation, cramped quarters and an unfulfillable wish to live with friends from other colleges, with each spring room draw there are often more reasons to leave the colleges than to stay.
The administration’s half-baked solutions to these issues — a buck more at Durfee’s, ramen noodle stations, co-ed suites for sophomores — barely scratch the surface of what is an increasingly critical threat. The University must take immediate steps to better incentivize students to stay in their residential colleges.
Yale’s peer institutions have more sensible living and dining arrangements. Columbia offers students on-campus apartments with kitchens, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology not only has a flexible on-campus meal plan but also keeps dorms open throughout the academic year, unlike Yale.
These trends are all the more astonishing when you consider that by almost every metric, students are better off living in a college. According to the YCC report, on-campus students eat healthier and more regularly, drink alcohol in a safer environment and have higher levels of well-being.
The college system has also begun losing one of its staple benefits: The integration of older and younger students. As seniors move off campus, mixed-age interactions become less frequent. What’s more, diverse communities are no longer a guarantee when almost one-fifth of Yale isn’t living together.
The egalitarianism of the housing lottery is being slowly replaced by an off-campus system that segregates students by income bracket. Wealthier students, by moving off campus, are free to flaunt their money through the purchase of high-end apartments, while poorer students worry about rent hikes.
Yale’s dream of 12 (now 14) utopias of diversity, intellectual growth and camaraderie has been fading away for some time, and students are showing no signs of bringing it back again. Is it once again time for Yale to completely rethink its approach to campus life, much as it did eight decades ago?
Maybe. But the administration won’t solve the web of financial and cultural problems facing the college system by simply creating a new committee or throwing money at the problem. Rather, we need to rediscover for ourselves what distinguishes the Yale experience from any other.
Let’s hope Yale’s leaders have the foresight to figure that out before we’re all learning to flambé on an electric stove.
Finnegan Schick is a senior in Timothy Dwight College and a former University editor for the News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .