John Garvey, the new President of Catholic University, announced last week that the university will return to single sex dorms. Many feathers were ruffled. It is a measure of the unisex madness in which we have become enmeshed that a Catholic university’s decision to house unmarried young men and women in separate dorms could be described as “controversial.”
Garvey announced his decision in a Wall Street Journal op ed. He cited his own experience as the father of five kids, and a handful of social science studies to affirm the obvious: When adolescents freed from the constraints of family life, are tossed into the same dorms, they are more likely to do dumb things. Garvey writes, “Christopher Kaczor at Loyola Marymount points to a surprising number of studies showing that students in co-ed dorms (41.5%) report weekly binge drinking more than twice as often as students in single-sex housing (17.6%). Similarly, students in co-ed housing are 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.”
Do we really need social science data to demonstrate this? Apparently so. A rather well-designed 2009 peer-reviewed study by Brian Willoughby and Jason Carroll, “The Impact of Living in Co-ed Resident Halls on Risk-taking Among College Students” confirms Garvey’s common sense. The study, published in the Journal of American College Health, relied on data from Project R.E.A.D.Y., a multi-site research project dedicated to investigating various aspects of emerging adulthood development.
The sample consisted of 510 unmarried undergraduate students recruited during the 2004–2005 academic year from five colleges– a small, private liberal arts college, a medium-sized, religious university, and three large public universities. The results? “Students living in co-ed housing were more likely than students living in gender-speci?c housing to binge drink , consume alcohol, have more permissive sexual attitudes, and have more recent sexual partners. On-campus housing environments impact college student risk behaviors.”
The first idea that occurs whenever social science uncovers a finding that supports a traditional practice is for academics to dismiss it as a selection effect. "My bet is that self-selection plays a very big role in this," sociologist Virginia Rutter, a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families told a CNN essayist. But while selection effects can seldom be entirely ruled out, the scholars did look hard without finding any, controlling for both psychological variables and religiosity of students.. Moreover, the authors point out, students in several large universities in this sample are actually randomly assigned to either single sex or unisex housing, ruling out selection effects altogther for a good part of the sample.
They conclude,“Serious consideration needs to be given to the possibility that co-ed housing and gender-speci?c housing create different social environments that vary in social norms, expectations, and behaviors.. . . Perhaps, in a way that mirrors research on fraternities and sororities, students in co-ed residence halls expect to be surrounded by more risk-taking and sexuality, which leads them to engage in behaviors they perceive as the norm.”
What? Students affected by the environment in which they live? Impossible. Just ask them: Madison Taylor 19,, reached by an enterprising reporter opined that coed dorms “seemed a little weird” at first, but “turned out fine… By the time people go to college, they're mature enough to live with the opposite sex and not have it be a big deal.” Laurie Sessions Stepp, author of “Unhooked,” a study of sexual encounters of college women, wrote in CNN that Garvey’s move was both sexist and futile: “Nothing in my twenty years of experience writing about young people suggests that reverting to the old days of male and female dorms will substantially reduce the frequency of drinking or casual sex.”
"If students want to drink, they're going to drink," chirped Madison Taylor, with her wisdom and experience of 19 years of life. Of course, Madison is right: young people determined to binge and have sex (often at the same time), will not be deterred by single sex housing. True. But who might be influenced ? A middle group of young adults ambivalent about stand up sex and falling down drunk could be “nudged” one way or another at least on some nights: a few less drinks or sex partners never hurt anyone. This is probably not news: Human beings are norm-seeking creatures. Young adults are affected by their environment, including any cues adults give them about what kind of behavior is expected. In the absence of any adult-generated norms, young people tend to revert to peer-generated norms, with, on average, predictably less pro-social results.
And certainly the young adults most committed to virtue, who come to a place like Catholic Universtiy as a haven, would feel more supported in this great and difficult endeavor. Both of these are good things. When I was 19, at Yale, I lived in a coed dorm with a coed bathroom and like Madison soon got used to it. Young people get used to what they are given. The question is, what do the adults want to give them? Catholic University’s decision to return to single-sex housing is an outward visible signs to young people struggling to achieve adulthood: norms exists and are worth caring about. It’s not “in loco parentis” but civilization.
Garvey deserves credit for courage, as well as common sense. Catholic University is the very first university in the history of United States to return to single sex dorms, after abandoning them to go coed for no particular reason in 1982. Garvey wrote, “I believe that intellect and virtue are connected. They influence one another. Some say the intellect is primary. If we know what is good, we will pursue it. . . . The goals we set for ourselves are brought into focus by our moral vision.” And sometimes, social scientists tell us, your dormmates’ moral vision.