“It kind of started as an experiment,” said Brian J. Willoughby, an assistant professor at Brigham Young University who has studied the differences between students living in coed dorms and those in single-sex ones.
A few years ago, Willoughby and his colleagues focused on five universities — one small liberal arts college, one medium-sized religious university and three large public universities — and surveyed more than 500 students about their drinking, drug and sex habits.
They found that students living in all-female or all-male halls were much less likely than their coed-dwelling classmates to binge drink, have multiple sexual partners or watch pornography. The trends stayed true even after controlling for religion, gender and race, Willoughby said.
”It’s really a different environment,” he said.
Usually, students who choose to live in an all-women or all-men residence hall are looking for a different, less-wild college experience. But what happens when you force all students to live in single-sex dorms? Will it change the culture of a campus?
It’s an experiment that Catholic University will try in the next few years as it converts all of its 17 halls to single-sex.
Some colleges — like the University of Notre Dame — have never ventured into coed housing, but no one can think of an example of a major university going the other way.
Will the Catholic experiment lead to lower rates of binge drinking, less parties and fewer students casually hooking up? Or will it just turn dorms into sororities and fraternities? And what about gay students?
My e-mail inbox has filled with predictions on both sides. Here’s a sampling:
Several readers applauded the university’s decision, saying same-sex housing was more in line with the school’s strong religious identity. Plus, many women wrote that same-sex dorms were more comfortable and built camaraderie.
Nicole Burns, Class of 2006, said the change has inspired her to send Catholic a donation: “There are many students and alumni (myself included) who chose to attend the university knowing we could rely on the administration to maintain a Catholic identity.”
Janet Ambrose, Class of 1960, added that coed dorms are “unnecessary and invite problems. Sorry kids, I don't like it.”
But several others said living in a coed dorm enhanced their college experience, allowing them to easily make friends of all sorts and freely work on class assignments with all of their peers. This was especially true for students who attended a single-sex high school and didn’t want to repeat the experience in college.
(One group is drafting a letter expressing their displeasure. To participate, e-mail CUA.Alumni.United@gmail.com.)
Nichole Krafve Dawsey, Class of 2003, said that living in a coed-by-floor dorm helped build social confidence and “afforded me the opportunity to not only get to know boys, but also to become friends with them (shocking, I know) ... Furthermore, the girls I met who lived in the all-girls' dorms could drink anyone under the table.”
Colin Farrell, Class of 2003, said he is “embarrassed for my alma mater.” He wrote that some of Garvey’s comments in a Wall Street Journal op-ed reinforced “an outdated, well-worn, and dangerous attitude toward women in the Catholic Church.”
Farrell added that Garvey “ought to keep in mind that Catholic grads will one day live in apartment buildings. ... Coed dorms provide an excellent social and academic learning experience.”
Finally, several readers pointed out that regardless of their housing preference, they doubted this arrangement would result in less drinking, let alone less hooking up.
Several alumni who graduated decades ago when Catholic did not have coed housing said they still binge drank and messed around in bed. According to them, students have been sneaking past hall monitors for generations — and this generation will be no different.
“We all certainly managed to enjoy ourselves,” wrote a 1984 graduate. A woman who graduated in 1980 added: “There were some hard drinking women in the seventies and eighties, there are some hard drinking women today.”
Gregory Dinegar, who graduated in 1990, told me last night that he once got kicked out of an off-campus apartment and moved in with a friend living in a women’s dorm for a couple months. “Something like that probably wouldn’t fly nowadays,” he said.
Michael T. Provine, who graduated in May, said there are better ways to address campus problems: “If they want to cut down on binge drinking, then they should hire more RAs to combat it and stop it from happening in the dorms.”
UPDATE: This blog post was corrected on Sept. 24, 2012, to change the year that Nichole Krafve Dawsey graduated from Catholic University. Although Dawsey originally identified herself in an e-mail as a 1999 graduate, she actually graduated in 2003.
So, what do you think? Add your prediction to the fray by leaving a comment below.