Yale administrators are deeply concerned about rising rates of upper-level students moving off campus. This trend is no secret: The Yale College Council reported that a whopping 17 percent of undergraduates lived off campus last year. That’s too many vacancies for Yale’s budget, which assumes only 11 percent of students live off campus. If unaddressed, this trend could bankrupt the residential colleges, destroying what many herald as the backbone of Yale.
For right now, the community within residential colleges is anemic at best. It’s no longer “cool” to live in your residential college as an upper-level student — and that’s the whole problem. To save the residential college system, Yale needs to rebrand on-campus life.
This off-campus exodus is not just straining Yale’s pockets. Instead, losing the residential colleges as the historical structure of Yale social life would corrode the central thing that makes our university unique. Just as the 20th-century writer Stefan Zweig once said that 1890s Vienna had “sperm in the air,” the residential college system once nurtured a similarly vibrant, diverse and intellectual community throughout four years of college. It’s what made Yale into a place of community, and it’s what holds the University together.
Before I continue, I need to make a disclaimer. I’ve lived off campus — if we can realistically call “The Elmhurst” off campus — for both junior and senior years. I have never regretted this decision. In fact, I count it among the best I’ve made at Yale. At the end of each day, I leave behind Yale’s sardine-squeezed social rigor of performed stress and exaggerated competence. My apartment is a little slice of cozy, one I desperately need.
People like me, though, are part of the 11 percent of people who always have and always will choose off-campus living over dorm life: city kids who forfeited their adolescent independence in their first year of college; culinary enthusiasts who relax through cooking; iconoclasts who balk at organized social spaces. Alternative students have always seceded from gothic arches. They probably always will.
Instead, the “cool” hemorrhaging out from on-campus life comes from a different place: the “High Street Migration,” the new fulcrum of conventionally cool Yale. Three of the more socially relevant fraternities are on High Street. Two sororities are right around the block. The Cambridge Oxford Apartments, with monthly rents significantly higher than on-campus housing, attract many of Yale’s most conspicuous undergraduate consumers. To save the residential colleges, Yale needs to take its mojo back from High Street.
By keeping these — often wealthy, often Greek-affiliated — High Street students on campus, Yale can slow the slow-drip spigot of increasingly empty beds and make much-needed interventions into the rise of fraternity culture at our institution. Keeping the conventional cool on campus would make partying safer, discourage wealthy students from self-segregating and save the residential college system.
To do that, though, Yale needs a new Old Campus. Instead of having first years live in Old Campus dorms, Yale should offer those rooms to seniors as opt-in, senior-only housing. Introducing a senior quad — popular at several of our smaller peer institutions — may encourage upper-level students to stay on campus. On the new Old Campus, seniors could live with whomever they’d like, regardless of college affiliation. Sure, some would choose to stay in their colleges, but many more might opt to live in mixed-college suites. It would be a place of class bonding, a fresh look at a new Yale.
Crazy, right? But think about it. It’s better for first years for sure, and it might just be better for seniors, too.
With the opening of the new colleges, only two-thirds of Yale’s first years live on Old Campus, thus effectively defeating the old purpose of Old Campus as a place of class bonding. If first years lived in their colleges from the outset, then they may associate more strongly with their colleges by influencing college culture.
The University-wide unwillingness to trek almost ensures Pauli Murray College will never host a well-attended party. Seniors living in close proximity on Old Campus means more options and less trekking. Because frankly, the incentive to leave Old Campus to party would be greatly diminished if the entire senior class were nearby. Weekend nights on the new Old Campus would resemble the fondly remembered bacchanal of the first months of Yale, creating a senior class unity and simultaneously depleting the outsized power of the fraternities. It would make on-campus living cool again.
This is a dramatic idea, but it might be our only hope. The idea of a new Old Campus has been bouncing around the University for a while — I first heard it two years ago in conversation with a professor. It’s time to make it a reality. Dean Marvin Chun is well poised to make sweeping changes in his first year overseeing the student body, and Yale is still shape-shifting with its two new colleges. A new Old Campus is the only way to save our residential college system. We can’t afford not to try.
Amelia Nierenberg is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .