Is That My Toothpaste?

A few weeks before my 10th college reunion I flipped through my yearbook. My first thought was how few of my 2,000 or so Boston College classmates I recalled. Of those faces I did remember, I had met most during freshman year. That may not be surprising. Arriving on a strange campus, it's natural at the outset to mingle frenetically and collect acquaintances. But I'm convinced there's another factor at work. Freshman year I lived in a small, two-man, cinder-block dorm room, the kind where 25 guys share a bathroom down the hall. Comfortable? Hardly. But for meeting people, it can't be beat.

During campus tours, it's easy to be seduced by the luxurious suites now sprouting at many colleges. But spartan dorms have a hidden advantage: they're far more social. Small rooms push students out into open spaces, forcing them to mingle. Suites swallow up their residents, who often keep doors closed. It's not surprising that a student's dorm affects his or her social life. Temple University sociologist Annette Lareau has studied working-class and middle-class families, and she's seen how housing affects lifestyle. She says working-class families--who live in smaller homes, with siblings often sharing bedrooms--spend more time together talking. Sibling fights are less acrimonious. More affluent families, in contrast, tend to peel off into separate corners of their McMansions. Dorms can function the same way.

Some students are becoming wise to the charms of a small room. Marilyn Emerson of College Planning Services Inc. says that when her clients matriculate at schools that offer both suites or old-style dorms to freshmen, the ones who wind up in the smaller quarters are initially disappointed. But after they move in, she says, "the feedback I get is they much prefer the older dorms--they're surprised at how social they are." Ball State University housing director Alan Hargrave says suites are especially ill-suited for freshmen. "They can cocoon themselves off, and it's much more difficult to meet new people," he says.

I'm not immune to the charms of a posher dorm. After a year in Fenwick Hall, I lived in suites or apartments during my last three years of college. But at my reunion, spending time with some Fenwick friends, I remembered my freshman room fondly. Cramped and plumbing-challenged as it was, our time there was well spent. Because when it comes to college socializing, small dorm rooms make good neighbors.