Many universities, especially religiously affiliated ones, state that they seek to foster both the intellectual growth and the ethical development of their students. Such universities set for themselves a rich goal: to educate the whole person, to develop students inside as well as outside the classroom, to enlarge the mind and the heart.
Two problems face such universities, and indeed virtually all universities: binge drinking and a hookup culture. Binge drinking hampers academic excellence insofar as heavy drinkers are more likely to skip class, fall behind in classwork, and have alcohol-related health problems that hamper academic success. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, college binge drinking is the leading cause of death in young adults.
In addition to hampering academic excellence, binge drinking also inhibits ethical development by focusing heavy drinkers inwards, on private self-indulgence, rather than outwards to service of others. Binge drinkers are more likely to commit illegal and unjust behaviors, including sexual assault and vandalism. Binge drinking also negatively effects sober or light drinking students who find themselves sexually harassed, insulted, and woken up in the middle of the night.
The other problem on campus, depicted so vividly by Tom Wolfe in I Am Charlotte Simmons, is the hookup culture. Especially for women, hooking up is related to depression, which can damage academic success. Sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, and pregnancy scares likewise hinder intellectual focus. The hookup culture also inhibits ethical development through a focus on private indulgence in which other people are used for pleasure, rather than on loving, committed relationships. Its practices also impose on others by displacing roommates who get “sexiled.”
What is the solution to these problems? Although there is no perfect solution, meaningful, significant reductions of the extent of both problems are possible.
The answer is simple. Most parents would view it positively. It is compatible with the traditions of religiously affiliated schools. What one change ameliorates both binge drinking and the hookup culture?
The answer is single-sex student residences. Research indicates that students in single-sex residences are significantly less likely to engage in binge drinking and the hookup culture than students living in co-ed student residences.
Let’s look at the connection between binge drinking and co-ed dorms first. Writing in the May 2002 edition of the Journal of Alcohol Studies, Thomas C. Harford and colleagues reported, “Another finding in the present study indicated that students living in coed dormitories, when compared with students in single-gender dorms, incurred more problem consequences related to drinking…. The reported differences in problem consequences extend previous studies of underage alcohol use in the CAS (Wechsler et al., 2000), which found that college students residing in coed dormitories and fraternity/sorority house, when compared with students residing in single-gender dormitories, were more likely to report heavy episodic drinking.” The American Journal of Preventative Medicine (2000) and Journal of American College Health (2009) have reported similar findings.
Perhaps students who enjoy risky behavior choose co-ed residences because they seek a more permissive atmosphere. So, the differences between co-ed and single sex residences reflect the kinds of people who choose them, rather than being caused by some difference between single-sex and co-ed residences.
This explanation fails. In almost all cases, students did not select single-sex dormitories, but were placed in them by university officials. Since there was no selection, there can be no selection effect. Researchers found no differences in depression, impulsivity, extroversion, body image, or pro-social behavior tendencies between the two groups—all differences relevant to students’ likelihood to take risks.
Why do co-ed residences have more binge drinking? A plausible explanation is that co-ed living creates a “party” expectation that students fulfill. College males want to get females to drink more, to facilitate hookups. College men themselves drink more as “liquid courage” to approach women and as part of the process of encouraging female drinking (for instance, with drinking games). In order to demonstrate “equality” with male students and so as not to seem prudish, college females drink more than they otherwise would. Single-sex residences reduce this binge drinking dynamic.
Not surprisingly, single-sex residences also reduce the hookup culture. In a 2009 study in Journal of American College Health, B.J. Willoughby and J.S. Carroll found that “students living in co-ed housing were also more likely [than those in single-sex residences] to have more sexual partners in the last 12 months.” Further, those students were “more than twice as likely as students in gender-specific housing to indicate that they had had 3 or more sexual partners in the last year.”
After controlling for age, gender, race, education, family background, and religiosity, living in a co-ed dorm was associated with more sexual partners. Indeed, “two thirds (63.2%) of students in gender-specific housing indicated that they had no sexual partners in the last year, whereas less than half of (44.3%) of students in co-ed housing indicated zero sexual partners in the last year.”
Naturally, some objections may be raised to establishing single-sex residences, especially concerns about enrollment. Students do not prefer single-sex residences, so if a university institutes them, enrollment will plummet.
However, many universities already have a few single-sex residences, and there is no evidence these residences lower enrolment even in part. Other colleges, such as the University of Notre Dame, have only single sex residences, yet have no problems with enrollment at all. If a student wants a “party school,” it may be better for the university environment if that student is deterred from enrolling because of single-sex residences.
Indeed, single-sex residences may benefit enrollment. Many parents would prefer to have single-sex residences for their children. Single-sex residences lead to the perception and the reality of a safer campus, especially for female students. Lower levels of binge drinking and participation in the hookup culture may also lead to higher graduation rates and a more academic atmosphere on campus, increasing prestige, which boosts enrollment.
Another objection is that a university is not a seminary. Division of males and females may be appropriate at a monastery, but not in a residence for college students.
No one is proposing that student residences have compulsory times of prayer like a convent. No one is proposing that student residences have mandatory “spiritual direction” like a monastery. Student residences at universities are not seminaries, but neither should they be visions of Animal House. As so many commentators have pointed out, the current situation is akin to Animal House. An Animal House environment is not conducive to intellectual or moral development. As students at the University of Notre Dame can attest, there is lots of fun to be had and no monastic atmosphere in single-sex residences.
By reducing levels of binge drinking and participation in the hookup culture, universities committed to the academic and ethical growth of students can better fulfill their mission. The time has come to stop bemoaning campus culture and to take concrete steps to improve the situation.
Christopher Kaczor is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and the author of The Ethics of Abortion, How to Stay Catholic in College and editor of O Rare Ralph McInerny: Stories and Reflections on a Legendary Notre Dame Professor.