The Coed Dorm Debate

June 17, 2011

Last week John Garvey, President of The Catholic University of America, wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal announcing an end to coed dorms at his school. (H/T: Soniya) Next year all entering freshmen will be assigned to single sex residence halls. After a few years, all dorms will be single sex.

“I believe that intellect and virtue are connected. They influence one another.

…”Virtue,” Aristotle [states], “makes us aim at the right mark, and practical wisdom makes us take the right means.” If he is right, then colleges and universities should concern themselves with virtue as well as intellect.

I want to mention two places where schools might direct that concern, and a slightly old-fashioned remedy that will improve the practice of virtue. The two most serious ethical challenges college students face are binge drinking and the culture of hooking up.”

To bolster his argument, President Garvey presents some not-so-fun facts about binge drinking:

  • Alcohol-related accidents are the leading cause of death for young adults aged 17-24.
  • Students who engage in binge drinking (about two in five) are 25 times more likely to do things like miss class, fall behind in school work, engage in unplanned sexual activity, and get in trouble with the law.
  • They also cause trouble for other students, who are subjected to physical and sexual assault, suffer property damage and interrupted sleep, and end up babysitting problem drinkers.

Hooking up has negative effects as well:

  • Rates of depression reach 20% for young women who have had two or more sexual partners in the last year, almost double the rate for women who have had none.
  • Sexually active young men do more poorly than abstainers in their academic work.

Currently, more than 90% of college housing in the U.S. is coed. Garvey cites some statistics that provide a comparison to single sex dorms:

  • Students in coed dorms (41.5%) report weekly binge drinking more than twice as often as students in single-sex housing (17.6%).
  • They are also more likely (55.7%) than students in single-sex dorms (36.8%) to have had a sexual partner in the last year—and more than twice as likely to have had three or more.

Critics have suggested these differences are largely a reflection of self-selection. Students who want to drink and carouse choose coed dorms. That is undoubtedly true, but I think it only strengthens Garvey’s argument. If students cannot stop themselves from making poor decisions when given the opportunity to do so, perhaps we should limit those opportunities.

The rise of hookup culture is generally attributed to court rulings in the 60s and 70s stating that colleges were no longer in loco parentis. “Colleges traditionally had the same rights and responsibilities as parents; the power to discipline the student as a parent could, but also the liability for harm that befell the student. Both the rights and responsibilities of in loco parentis began to recede as the Woodstock generation declared its independence. As the boomers asserted their freedoms at colleges and universities across the nation, in loco parentis fell away, and with it came a legal regime that treated colleges and universities as bystanders, rarely responsible for harms that befell students.”

Students were declared full-fledged adults, responsible for their own behavior. That didn’t stop Boomer parents from trying to hold colleges liable, however, and today colleges routinely suspend or even expel students for eating disorders or depression rather than be involved in supervising a student’s well-being. They have had little power, however, to control alcohol and sex-related debauchery.

Jezebel, in its own inflammatory hyperbolic fashion, responded to Garvey’s editorial with this headline:

Catholic University Reverts To Single-Sex Dorms Because Ladies Can’t Stop Being Slutty


“See ladies, this is your fault for not being able to resist male students’ attempts to get in your pants! Even worse, you’re now trying to keep up with men, who are promiscuous by nature. Of course when left to their own devices, heterosexual adult women usually hold tea parties in their dorm rooms rather than engaging in tawdry trysts with members of the opposite sex…

Apparently Garvey thinks students are only pursuing sex because it’s so incredibly easily to hook up with someone in the same building. When presented with the challenge of walking an extra 50 feet to the adjacent dorm, students will definitely give up their lascivious pursuits and hit the books.”

A student editorial at Georgetown isn’t any more substantive, simply reminding President Garvey that correlation does not imply causality, and whining that the effect on LGBT students wasn’t fully explored. (I’m not sure why this should be an issue – it sounds to me like they’ll just get a freebie. Or is that the problem?)

Are we right to question the ability of students to make the best choices for themselves? Like other issues causing problems for students on college campuses, including sexual assault and cheating, binge drinking and hooking up are arguably clearly not in a student’s best interest. To what extent should we permit, even encourage, students to make those poor choices? Should we hold students responsible for exercising good judgment and prudence? If we do, does it make a difference if drunken coeds are next door vs. across the quad?

Two young women here at HUS have shared with me their own stories of sexual assault as a result of a young man simply entering their rooms while they were asleep and raping them. If feminists are deeply concerned about sexual assault on college campuses, why are they not welcoming the opportunity to separate the sexes? Between this position and the slutwalks, it’s as if feminists want to put women in dangerous situations, while curtailing their ability to deflect assault, for political gain.

If feminists want women to be free to choose to have sex whenever they wish, I have no problem with it. But why should we balk if that requires a stroll over to the guys’ dorm? Is it sex on demand that we want and deserve, like a microwaveable pizza?

Stuart Schneiderman, who writes the blog Had Enough Therapy? wrote the following in his post Boys and Girls Together?:

18 year olds are barely adults. Their moral sense has just recently developed and, at times, their lack of experience shows. They know a lot more about being children than they do about being responsible adults.

Most, if not all, college students depend on their parents financially, and they still require guidance.

It is one thing to offer guidance that a child ignores; quite another to fail to offer any guidance at all.


I recall when my children were seniors in high school. At that time, co-ed sleepovers were all the rage. My children stamped their feet and railed that I was unreasonable for not letting them attend these all-night celebrations, with plenty of underage drinking fueling the shenanigans.

As I saw it, these parties were all downside. Of course, the kids assured me that they had good judgment, nothing would happen, etc. etc. I pointed out that even if they exercised good judgment, that didn’t mean others would. It just made no sense to put twenty 18 year-olds in a basement with a keg and hope for the best. Yet fast forward four months, and that’s exactly what they were all doing at college! When during the summer between high school and college does the mature decision-making switch get turned on?

Eric Barker highlighted a study that shows that teenage brains are very similar to those of drug addicts:

“Galvan found that teen brains can’t get pleasure out of doing things that are only mildly or moderately rewarding… Galvan noted that the response pattern of teen brains is essentially the same response curve of a seasoned drug addict. Their reward center cannot be stimulated by low doses—they need the big jolt to get pleasure.”

Scholastic’s website discusses in more detail the science of the teen brain in Teens and Decision Making: What Brain Science Reveals:

“Not long ago, scientists thought the human brain was fully mature long before the teen years. While research shows that one’s brain reaches its maximum size between ages 12 and 14 (depending on whether you are a girl or a boy), it also shows that brain development is far from complete. Regions of the brain continue to mature all the way through a person’s early 20s.

A key brain region that matures late is the prefrontal cortex, located directly behind your forehead. The prefrontal cortex is very important as a control center for thinking ahead and sizing up risks and rewards. (This area is, in fact, the little red light that was trying to warn you about sending that e-mail.) Meanwhile, another part of the brain that matures earlier is the limbic system, which plays a central role in emotional responses.

Since the limbic system matures earlier, it is more likely to gain an upper hand in decision making. This relationship between the emotional center (limbic system) and control center (prefrontal cortex) helps to explain a teen’s inclination to rush decisions. In other words, when teens make choices in emotionally charged situations, those choices are often more weighted in feelings (the mature limbic system) over logic (the not-yet-mature prefrontal cortex).

This is also why teens are more likely to make “bad” choices, such as using drugs, alcohol, and tobacco—all of which pose a risk of serious health consequences. “Most kids don’t really ‘plan’ to use drugs,” says Professor Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, “at least not the first time. They are more likely to experiment on the spur of the moment, particularly when influenced by others [peer pressure].”

We’ve learned a great deal about adolescent brains in the last 50 years. Clearly, 18 year-olds are, in fact, not fully fledged adults. Sociologists have recently been redefining adolescence as a period that may last until age 26. Shouldn’t this discovery be reflected in our policies and practices?

Will single sex dorms eliminate hooking up? Of course not. People who want to have sex can still walk across the quad to get it. Will it stop underage drinking? Nothing has worked yet to curb bingeing in college, there’s no reason to think single sex dorms will. But if we do what little we can to keep our children out of harm’s way, from situations with no upside, we encourage prudent behavior.

So you just can’t stop yourself from entering a girl’s room and pouncing on her while she’s sleeping? Perhaps that decision will seem less reasonable in the sober light of day, and you’ll be glad you had no access.

Your roommate is sexiling you every single weekend with random dudes from down the hall? Maybe sex in dorm rooms should require the consent of all three people affected by the decision.

As readers here are fond of saying, the toothpaste isn’t going back into the tube. This will not signal the end of hooking up or binge drinking. Students determined to have those experiences will surely find ways to do so. We did back in the 70s – it really wasn’t hard. I think there is value, though, in setting students up for success by anticipating some of the many things that can go wrong, and providing the safest, sanest environment for learning and growth that we can.

Parents can’t do it alone, and neither can colleges. We must work together to share this responsibility to protect our young people. I commend John Garvey for arguing the connection between intellect and virtue, and for taking action that will certainly help some students and save some lives. I hope his fellow university presidents will follow in his footsteps.