Separate Dorms for First-Generation Freshmen?

The Chronicle recently featured a story about the University of Kentucky’s initiative to provide a separate experimental residence hall for students who are the first in their family to attend college. The new residence hall, according to reporter Lacey Johnson, is “created specifically for first-generation freshmen,” and offers “on-site tutoring, weekly seminars about adjusting to college life, and special field trips to help students get to know one another.” The hall is meant to provide “an opportunity to be with people of a similar background who are facing the same challenges.”

Students are free to choose whether or not to apply to live in the dorm; and the hall is only for freshman year. But I still think this is a counterproductive idea that should be nipped in the bud because it undercuts the central arguments for having greater socioeconomic diversity in higher education: to maximize social mobility for disadvantaged students and to create an educationally valuable diverse environment for everyone on campus.

As readers of this blog know, I’m fairly obsessive in my criticism of the way higher education mistreats low-income, working-class, and first-generation college students. Since my 1996 book, The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action, I’ve argued colleges should give a preference to low-income and working-class students in admissions. Subsequently, I edited two books that include chapters by leading scholars arguing for special support programs for economically disadvantaged students: America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education (2004) and Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College (2010). Week after week, in this blog, I rail against practices such as non-need merit aid and early admissions as unfair to economically disadvantaged students.

But separate dorms, even though intended to help ease the transition of first-generation college students, make little sense in my view.

First, networks matter in college, and they appear to especially matter for low-income students. Research has long found that half of adult jobs are filled through some sort of a personal connection. Whether it’s fair or not, middle- and upper-middle-class students have, on average, more valuable employment networks than low-income students. While there is some controversy over whether students benefit from attending a more selective college, even the skeptics concede there is value added for low-income students–probably because of access to networks they wouldn’t otherwise be able to avail themselves of.

At the University of Kentucky, one first-generation student tells the Chronicle, “Everybody in the dorm knows everybody else, and we all hang out together.” This is surely comforting to many first-generation students but it also means they are spending less time with more advantaged students on campus. Freshman ties can be very important to friendships throughout college, and being in a first-generation dorm can mean being cut off from important networks.

Second, part of the reason that colleges want to diversify and admit more low-income, working-class or first-generation students is the belief that all students benefit when discussions are enriched by people who bring different life experiences to bear. Of course, first-generation students living in separate dorms will still share classrooms with other students, but surely something is lost when late night freshman dormitory bull sessions are effectively segregated.

The University of Kentucky is to be commended for providing special tutoring and services to first-generation students, who, on average, have lower graduation rates, but this can be accomplished without separate living spaces. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, has a series of programs for low-income Carolina Covenant scholars: faculty and staff mentoring of first-year students; peer mentoring by experienced Covenant Scholars; special development opportunities such as etiquette dinners and career workshops; and social events for Covenant Scholars, all of which–along with a strong financial aid program–have boosted student retention and graduation.

But separate dorms are a mistake. In years past, well-meaning institutions had separate dormitories for students of color in order to ease their transition, but many of those have since been abandoned as an anachronism. First-generation students face special challenges and deserve special programs and support, but separating them from others on campus is likely to do them–and the other students on campus–more harm than good.

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