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5 min read

What to Know About Residential Colleges & Living Learning Communities

What to Know About Residential Colleges & Living Learning Communities

When most people think about living on campus, they think about the traditional college dorm with beds bunked over desks, shared bathrooms, and a Residential Assistant (RA) living down the hall.

Yet one of the best kept secrets, or at least something not discussed nearly enough, is unique residential communities on college campuses. Rather than dropping your freshman off in a room with one or two other people, there is an alternative that enables them to join a community of either like-minded people or a predetermined group, which often become the students’ second families. Since freshman year can be a difficult transition for students, from homesickness to dealing with independence, these communities offer a support system that most freshmen could benefit from.


  blue@2x   Blog Highlights:

    • What residential colleges and living learning communities are
    • The benefits of residential colleges and living learning communities
    • Examples of residential colleges and living learning communities
    • Why residential colleges and living learning communities might be a better option than traditional college dorms






There are 2 unique on-campus living situations to keep in mind:

  1. Residential colleges
  2. Living learning communities

Although the housing system on each college campus varies greatly, both of these systems generally help to enhance the student’s college experience. If residential colleges and living learning communities are intriguing to you, they may bump to the top of your list of factors considered when choosing a best-fit college.


Type 1: Residential Colleges

What is a residential college system?

Collegiate Way describes residential colleges as attempting to “divide a large school into small, permanent, faculty-led, cross-sectional, human-friendly components that promote both learning and loyalty.” Many students have likened them to the houses in Harry Potter. While the magical hat determines which house the students will live in during their time at Hogwarts, students are assigned the residential college they will live in prior to their arrival on campus. Since 400-500 students is the general guideline for the number of students in a residential college, it enables students to take advantage of all that a larger school might offer yet gives the students a smaller school feel. In addition to a sense of belonging, the students are able to connect with the faculty who live alongside of them in these communities.

Some colleges require living in the dorms, or specifically a residential college. Many colleges do not require living in a residential college.

A Brief History of Residential Colleges

The tradition of residential college systems stretches back hundreds of years to colleges in Great Britain and was adopted in the United States in the 1930s by Harvard and Yale.

The concept was largely ignored, however, as colleges ballooned in size when the baby boom generation began coming of age. 

The Benefits of Residential Colleges for Students

Residential colleges provide a unique opportunity for students to not only live among faculty members but also receive their support in both academic and personal matters. These dedicated faculty members become a vital support system for students, helping to bridge the gap between students and faculty and breaking down any barriers that may exist. With their guidance and mentorship, students can thrive and make the most of their college experience away from home.

These communities give students a sense of belonging, pride, fellowship, and camaraderie. In fact, Yale explains its “residential college system, now more than 70 years old, [as] perhaps the most distinctive feature of the College. The residential colleges allow students to experience the cohesiveness and intimacy of a small school while still enjoying the cultural and scholarly resources of a large university; the residential colleges do much to foster spirit, allegiance, and a sense of community at Yale.”

While students at Yale usually live in their residential college for all four years, other colleges may have a different structure. For example, at Princeton, students are required to live in one of six residential colleges as freshman and sophomores but then have housing options for their junior and senior years.

Although residential colleges are often associated with Ivy League schools, there are residential colleges in sixteen countries and can be found on over thirty college campuses in the United States. In fact Vanderbilt University decided to incorporate residential colleges as recently as 2008 for all students.

In addition to Vanderbilt, below you will find a variety of colleges that offer the residential college experience; however, it is important to note that each college refers to their residential college system differently. You can find the full list of colleges that offer the residential college experience at Collegiateway.org.

Getting excited to pack your bags? This article on dorm room essentials can help with the packing process!

Type 2: Themed Housing and Living Learning Communities

What are themed housing and living learning communities?

College themed housing and living learning communities (LLCs) differ from residential colleges; their primary focus is a common interest among the students who live within the LLC. American University explains their living learning communities as “cohorts of students who live and explore a common interest or academic pursuit together. Some include required courses that students must take and others are organized around a theme or community interest that students wish to learn more about.”

However, the themed housing or LLC’s offered at each college can vary widely. When researching colleges or while on a campus tour, it's worth learning about the LLCs offered, and if interested, ask the admissions office if you can visit and/or talk with a student who is currently a member.

Most colleges do not require participation in a living learning community, but it can be a great way to enter a tight-knit community right off the bat.

The Benefits of Themed Housing and Living Learning Communities

I attended a small private university that offered two unique Living Learning Communities (LLCs) in a single 50-unit building: an honors program and a volunteering LLC. This arrangement provided an incredible opportunity to connect with like-minded students who shared similar interests. Not only did we have the chance to take classes together, particularly during our first two years, but we also lived in close proximity to one another, allowing us to form deep connections and friendships in a short period of time. Many of the friends I made in the living learning community are still close friends to this day!

There was also a full-time staff member that lived in the hall (separate from the students) that was available to answer questions and act as a "head RA" of sorts.

In my experience, the living learning community provided a support system on day one of college, which is huge, considering going to college is likely one of the biggest life changes you will face.

There are many other benefits as well, including academic ones. Syracuse University, which has over 25 living learning communities, does a great job of explaining the benefits of these communities on its campus. These benefits seem to be the same ones touted at most colleges that offer this type of experience:

  • Enhanced academic and social opportunities
  • Improved GPA
  • Improved connection to faculty
  • Greater involvement in learning
  • Increased satisfaction with your SU experience
  • Increased persistence to graduation.

Types of Living Learning Communities

Here are some common topics living learning communities focus on:

  • Living well and health
  • First generation students
  • Art
  • Music
  • Engineering
  • Multicultural
  • Study-intensive
  • ROTC
  • Outdoor adventure
  • Transfer students
  • Social justice
  • Business
  • STEM
  • Food/cooking
  • Honors
  • Health sciences
  • Volunteering
  • Religion
  • Environment
  • Farming and sustainable living
  • Gender and sexual orientation
  • Substance-free
  • Writers
  • Leadership

Living Learning Community Structure

While residential colleges tend to have very similar structures, other than the length of time the students must live there, LLCs and themed housing vary greatly in their structures. Most colleges that offer LLCs or themed housing also offer regular residential halls. Some offer academic support from faculty, others have faculty members live among the residents, yet others only provide a common interest among the students. Elizabethtown College explains that “students who live in these communities not only benefit from the learning that takes place in a traditional residence hall, but have the added benefit of being able to connect with others in their program of study, with shared interests, or shared lifestyles.”

Elon University, which boasts thirty different Living Learning Communities, has faculty members who live among the students, similar to residential colleges. Since all on-campus housing is located in one area on Elon’s campus, called the neighborhood, it takes “a holistic approach to education, recognizing that it is not enough to provide the means for academic success but we must also provide tools, knowledge, and resources to support students’ personal, professional, and social development.”

Although LLCs and themed housing can be found on all types of college campuses, many state schools, such as West Virginia University, University of Arizona, and Virginia Tech, and Florida State University offer these communities to their students. 

Due to the many benefits offered through these communities, it’s worthwhile to spend the time researching the type of LLC or themed housing offered at the schools to which you are considering.

If you're looking to learn more about finding the best college for you, check out: Finding a College That's a Good Fit for Your Academic Needs


This article was originally published on March 22, 2018. It was updated on July 11, 2023 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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