I was perhaps 8 or 9 years old when my father took us to the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Madras, where a much younger cousin of his was pursuing an undergraduate program. The city of Madras itself was mind-blowing to me, coming from a small industrial township. Entering through the gates of IIT, I felt I had been taken to an entirely new world.
I had no idea that a college campus could be that big, with plenty of buildings, and deer wandering through! There were hostels that housed students like my father's cousin. I decided that I too should go to IIT Madras when the time came for me to go to college. (It was a thrill to go there again as a high school student. But, by then I had doubts about engineering, and decided against preparing for the competitive entrance examinations.)
Meanwhile, down in the southern part of the state, my cousin was working on his college degree. Most days, he cycled to the college, which was about 5 miles away from home. During the rainy season, he rode the local bus.
Even now, most students going to college in India are like my cousin: They don't have any experience of a residential college. They stay at home, or at the home of a relative in another town, and commute to college.
Here in the United States, college is almost always equated with residential colleges. The founding of colleges has led to the growth of many college-towns. Students come from all over--sometimes from other countries too--stay in the dorms, and work towards their degrees.
Has residential college always been about education though?
Bill Watterson so memorably sketched it out:
For the most part, we all went with this model, even when we knew well that students were not really in the dorms and in town for a quality education. It provided plenty of material for awesome movies too.
We also knew this was not sustainable in the long run. Wasting money on entertainment like football and basketball; constructing resorts like dorms; fancy gyms; ... it is a long list of what not to do. Some of us--a small number--kept complaining, but we were shouted down.
The pandemic has lifted the curtains on the residential model of college education, and ... we are forced to reckon with the fact that college was never about education! "We’ve built a large part of our society around the experience of college, but precious little around the education it provides."
So, does this mean the end of the idea of residential college?
Dream on, but that won't happen.
The pandemic has made college frail, but it has strengthened Americans’ awareness of their attachment to the college experience. It has shown the whole nation, all at once, how invested they are in going away to school or dreaming about doing so. Facing that revelation might be the most important outcome of the pandemic for higher ed: An education may take place at college, but that’s not what colleges principally provide. ... The pandemic offered an invitation to construe college as an education alone, because it was too dangerous to embrace it as an experience. Nobody was interested. They probably never will be.