Decline of the Residential College Experience: A Risk to ‘Emerging Adulthood’?

Amid rising college costs and sharply reduced state funding, many actual and would-be reformers view the dramatic expansion of online instruction as the best way to save money and improve access to higher education.  While online classes are a great advantage for non-traditional students and perhaps for traditional students who can take them in place of some large lecture courses, their overuse may have a negative impact on the personal development of students in the 18-29 age group.

Thus far, the arguments for online instruction have been so influenced by the current financial angst that the impact of true “distance learning” on the personal development of college-aged students has not been at the forefront of the debate.  Yet with generations of highly successful residential college students standing as testament to the value of the traditional college experience, both in the U.S. and abroad, we should take care not to permit the perceived financial advantages of distance learning to overwhelm the developmental advantages of residential learning.

Instead of focusing exclusively on whether cheaper online instruction can impart knowledge as effectively as a college instructor in a lecture hall, we should also take equal care to understand the impact of online instruction on the personal development of students.  This is increasingly true now that Massive Open Online Courses are being considered for college credit.  If we continue to speak in developmental terms, we could say that the atomization of the college experience may only be in its infancy, and we are far from certain about the impact of its growth.

The online revolution is not the only factor that has reduced the proportion of students who participate in the residential college experience.  According to “The American Freshman 2012,” the fascinating work of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, fewer college-aged students are living in dorms now and more are living at home with parents.  The UCLA report also shows that more students are acceding to the wishes of their parents now when it comes to which college to attend and whether to live at home, largely because of financial reasons.

While it is understandable that the economic crisis has forced parents and students alike to be more realistic, we are still left with the question whether, in the long term, we want to see further declines in residential college life.

At least since 2004, when Oxford University Press published Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties, by Jeffrey Arnett, psychologists have recognized a distinct development phase between adolescence and adulthood

Arnett convincingly argues that this phase, emerging adulthood, has come about because of the “rise in the ages of entering marriage and parenthood, the lengthening
of higher education, and prolonged job instability during the twenties…. This period is not simply an ‘extended adolescence,’ because it is much different from adolescence, much freer from parental control, much more a period of independent exploration.”

Well before Arnett’s influential work, eminent scholars such as A.W. Astin, founding director of the influential Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, had written in the 1970s about the importance of the college years to the development of personal identity.  Other scholars who have contributed to our understanding of the college years as a time of critical personal development include Arthur W. Chickering (Education and Identity, 1969), among many publications.

Chickering identified seven “vectors” of development during the college years:

1. Developing intellectual, social, and physical competence.
2. Learning to manage emotions.
3. Moving through autonomy toward interdependence.
4. Developing mature interpersonal relationships.
5. Establishing identity.
6. Developing purpose.
7. Developing integrity.

The list begs the question: Can’t these “vectors” be followed outside of the residential college experience?  The answer is yes, but at what levels of interdependence, with what high or low purpose in mind?  The context of the development is critical.  Other researchers have also pointed to a phenomenon called the “environmental press,” which is a nice way of describing how our peers can push and challenge us.  Will some of our old high school friends challenge us in the same way as our smartest friends and classmates in college, not to mention our professors?

Although the UCLA study tells us that more students are arriving at college feeling “overwhelmed,” it also reports that students with such feelings are more likely than others to find positive support in college that reduces this kind of pressure and enables them to succeed amid the “environmental press” of classwork.  Students living at home may experience only the classroom “press” while lacking the support of student groups and counselors.  These students, in turn, are more likely to turn to their parents at just the time in the students’ lives when they should be pursuing the “vectors” described by Chickering.

Other recent research on college peer relationships, by Lisa M. Swenson, Alicia Nordstrom, and Marnie Hiester, looks at the relationship of college freshmen with their former high school classmates.

“Peer relationships are an integral part of adolescents’ and emerging adults’ lives,” the authors conclude. “In this study, we identified specific ways in which close peer relationships are associated with adjustment to college. Maintaining ties with high school friends can help a new college student adjust during the initial transition period, but it is also important for these college students to make new friends in their new environment if they want to improve their chances of success. Given the serious implica­tions of failure in college, this study provides empirical evidence for the importance of friendships in the transition to college.”

Without considering the personal development of the “emerging adults” who enter college and the ways their peers and professors can affect the remainder of their lives, reformers who are keen to increase access and reduce costs via distance learning may discover that, contrary to their dreams of producing more highly-trained students for the market place, they will be sending young people into the world who have yet to emerge from their early adult phase, and must then “emerge” on the job.  Do we really want to wait so long for this to happen?

–John Willingham, Editor