Kaplan: Adjusting to Dorm Living

Nothing, not even little brothers, can prepare most college freshmen for the experience of dorm life. America's brightest young people are the future of this country, but that doesn't mean all of them are housebroken. A dorm's occupants, though, are only part of the problem. Even the spiffiest new buildings are often cramped and antiseptic. And like everything else associated with college, room-and-board prices in the past decade have gone from kick-to-the-groin to knife-in-the-gut. Jake Aldrich, a 23-year-old psychology major at Michigan State, has such complicated emotions about the year he spent in the dorms at another college that he struggles to find the right words. "It sucked," he says. "I hated it." And he was rooming with his best friend.

It's worth noting that plenty of kids have terrific dorm experiences and would never dream of passing a year (or more) of college any other way. But for those who hear the D word and picture filthy bathrooms and marauding Visigoths, schools now offer plenty of alternatives (though you might need to wait until sophomore year to take advantage). Maybe you'd prefer living in a "green" residence, where students aim to live with a carbon footprint the size of a thumbtack, setting an example for the rest of the campus. Or perhaps you long for a house you can make your own, where you can paint the walls neon orange, share food and clothing with your housemates and live every minute as latter-day commune hippies. Or, if it's the spartan accouterments of dorms that turn you off, you could try something a bit more posh. Many campuses offer living arrangements with powerhouse AC, flat-screen TVs, even doormen—at prices that would make eco-devotees choke on their wheatgrass shakes.

Colleges no longer take for granted even the most basic assumptions about residential life, starting with the idea that guys prefer to bunk with other guys, and gals with gals. Coed dorms have been common for years, but now the last frontier is being explored: coed rooms, or "gender-neutral housing." Conceived as a way to accommodate transgender students, coed arrangements on select campuses are open to all. Michol Lynne Merrill, 21, a senior at the University of Southern Maine, lives with her friend John and scoffs at the idea that she's doing something revolutionary. "Honestly, it's no big deal," Merrill says. "It's totally platonic. It's kind of like living with a brother." Increasingly, though, some colleges are getting comfortable with the practice even when it's not so platonic (sidebar). Gender-neutral housing is still quite rare—only about 30 schools nationwide permit it, and those that do confine the practice to a few residences. But in keeping with such a liberal policy, the barriers to entry are low. "We don't ask why they're choosing to live together," says Denise Nelson, USM's director of residential life. "But we do say if this is at all controversial in your home, make sure you talk to your parents."

After his bumpy year in a dorm at another school, Aldrich transferred to Michigan State and learned about its Student Housing Cooperative, a loose network of 12 houses with about 15 to 20 residents apiece who all cook, clean and think as a unit. Aldrich's house, the Vlach-Bower Cooperative, has traditionally been a vegan residence (though an all-veggie lifestyle is not required), and the 17 kids who live there grow much of their own food on a fifth of an acre near the house. "I feel better than I ever have before—I don't think a lot of kids in dorms can say that," Aldrich says. "There is much love in this house. I really enjoy giving tours here because of the reactions people have. Art is everywhere. It's like walking into a beautiful little world." The price tag is also attractive: on average, just under $360 a month—a bill that includes a full meal plan. And if Vlach-Bower sounds a bit too granola, Michigan State offers 11 other options, including the David Bowie Memorial Co-op.

Environmentalism is a core value among today's undergrads, and colleges are angling to help students put belief into daily practice. At the leading edge is Oberlin's Student Experiment in Ecological Design (SEED) House, an eight-person habitat where students study together in a communal living room, do worm composting to reduce garbage, keep the thermostat at 60 and keep an hourglass in the shower to remain vigilant against water waste. "I come from a generation that is really committed to the environment," says Alex Totoiu, a SEED resident.

Oberlin isn't unusual. The competition among colleges for talented students is intense, and innovative living quarters are among the best lures. But before you get too entranced by the possibility of living like a Jetson—or a Trump—at least one student would like to make a case for old reliable. "We have radiator heat. We don't have air conditioning. We don't have granite countertops—we don't even have a countertop," says Steve Schuster, 19, now in his third year of dorm life at Kent State. "It's really old school, but it's kind of cool. And I found that if I can get along with someone in a little room, then I can get along with people anywhere. And besides, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." See? That doesn't sound so bad.