What’s more, I’ve reasoned, first-generation college-goers like my students, who have grown up with little money and English as a second language, are especially in need of the academic and social support systems a campus can provide. It’s better to pay more for college and actually finish. The student who quits school after two years still has to pay back her loans.
But the arguments for living on campus are complicated at every turn. In reality, dorm life, especially at selective schools, can be alienating for first-generation minority students struggling to relate to peers with private school diplomas and plenty of pocket money. To low-income parents, many of whom have more traditional values, talk of non-academic engagement can sound pretty frivolous and even suspicious, as if easy access to frat row were being recast as a pillar of a well-rounded education. To these same parents, staying at home doesn’t seem at all unconventional. In high school, my peers and I understood going away to college as going away. Separation from family was part of the deal. This is not a universally accepted notion in Latino and Asian family traditions in which multi-generational households are quite common.
I realize now that when I was advocating for life on campus, I was partly romanticizing the late-night study sessions, parties, hook-ups, debates, and events simply because they’d been part of my own experience. I advocated for what I knew, not because I didn’t acknowledge my students’ financial realities, but because I saw my college experience as being worth the problems reaching for it might generate. Less-privileged students often understand college as something very different: commuting to classes, learning the material with whatever resources they can access, and then going home to study.
For all of these reasons, any campaign in favor of residency should be delicately waged. Helicopter teachers are more annoying than their parent equivalents. Instead of bellowing to a squirming student about the dangers of social isolation, teachers and counselors might consider telling stories. When I make a pro-residency pitch to a student who seems especially likely to benefit from on-campus living, I can rattle off statistics and share anecdotes about other students I have taught, those who have done dorms and benefited, those who have commuted and felt isolated. Or I can just speak, in casual conversation, without a stated purpose, about the characters I met in college—those who have since been housemates, co-workers, editors, bandmates, confidantes, and fodder for dozens of yet-to-be-written short stories. I can talk about the professors I could invite for a beer, and about the agony and ecstasy of intramural softball competition.
The friends you make within the learning community you cultivate, the ones you may never know if you just swoop in for classes and labs, may someday become business partners, creative collaborators, and reliable allies in a future life unfolding over a horizon you can’t see past. That is part of what your tuition pays for—the opportunity to learn in the specific context that the school provides, not just in a specific program helmed by renowned professors. The advantages can be hard to anticipate before the opportunity to enjoy their fruits have arrived.
But being a good English teacher, I have learned when to step back from the lectern. I would like to see my students reap all the benefits I received from on-campus living. While they deserve this experience as much as anyone, it's patronizing, unfair, and impractical to demand that they seize it.