The Future of the Undergraduate Residential Campus

December 19, 2013  | 4 min read

By Mark Davis
Dean of Student Affairs, Seaver College

Some predict that massive online open courses (MOOCs) offered for free by prestigious universities will soon obliterate undergraduate residential campuses.

For example, Nathan Harden, in a recent article, “The End of the University as We Know It,” asserts:

The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and 10 years from now Harvard will enroll 10 million students.

Although we are clearly in a midst of technological revolution and need to pay careful attention to changing trends, the predicted bleak future may not be considering all the factors.

First, as Sir Ken Robinson recently reminded Pepperdine faculty and staff at a leadership conference, it’s very difficult to predict the future of higher education. Yes, you can point to industries that the technology revolution has completely changed, rendering some forms of delivery largely obsolete—e.g., music stores and newspapers. But some say colleges are more like cities, with the ability to adapt and evolve as needs change. If you look at Pepperdine’s history, we have adjusted to major crises through wise stewardship and creative innovation without sacrificing our mission.

Second, predictions about the downfall of residential campuses are based on a uniform view of education that limits its mission to the transmission of academic knowledge. Pepperdine has more to offer. Our mission is about transformation, not transmission. Mr. Pepperdine described it this way: “I have often said that this college tries to teach students how to live, as well as how to make a living. We want every student to have a full realization of eternal values such as the beauty of a noble character, the value of absolute integrity, the advantages of complete justice and truth in all human relationships, and most of all, a closer walk with God.” Pepperdine offers a transformative experience that can’t be replicated online.

Third, there’s no substitute for the powerful impact of the peer culture at a residential college. Alexander Astin, summarizing decades of research in his book What Matters in College, concluded that the student’s peer group is the single most potent source of influence on growth and development during the undergraduate years. That’s why we invest so much care in selecting student resident advisors and spiritual life advisors. They help create the type of positive peer environment where parents want to send their children to school.

Several years ago we held an essay contest at the end of the academic year for freshmen to reflect on what they learned from living in the residence halls. I kept a copy of the winning essay by Kevin Mills (’07) because it’s a great example of the essential connection between what is taught in the classroom and what is learned in the community. In this final summary paragraph of the essay, we see how the residential experience fosters deep and meaningful growth:

These past months of living on campus have impacted me more than I could ever have previously imagined. Through living on campus and away from home for the first time, I’ve come to comprehend creativity, tolerance, responsibility, understanding, and so many other truly meaningful life lessons that have surpassed in importance anything that I could learn only in a classroom.

In speech class, I learned the rules of rhetoric, but in my dorm, I learned how to speak words of consolation to a hurting roommate and to understand the words that go unsaid. In religion class I learned theology, but in my suite I saw true faith. In sociology class I studied the dynamics of race inequality, but in my room I felt the pain of prejudice. In history I read about great men, but in my everyday life I learned how to be a great man.

This first year of living on campus has taught me that success is not about getting an “A” on a test or the moments of acclaim in front of a large audience, but rather is made up of the thousands of tiny actions and choices that we make each day that comprise the person we truly are as we go about living our daily lives.

Kevin was later elected as president of the Student Government Association. After graduating from Pepperdine he went on to complete a JD and MBA at one of the nation’s highest ranked universities. Now he works for a company that offers MOOCs in association with prestigious universities. I recently sent Kevin a copy of his essay and asked him if he thinks technological advances will one day make a residential experience like he experienced at Pepperdine obsolete. His answer was clear: even if MOOCs are successful in extending the reach of education, there will still be a huge need and demand for the holistic experience Pepperdine offers.

Looking back, Kevin said so much of his growth depended on personal relationships with faculty, staff, and friends. An education is more than transmitting content. An education is more than finding a job. At Pepperdine, it’s also about answering life’s most important questions and exploring faith in supportive relationships. It’s about how to live, not just how to make a living.

So what is the future of residential undergraduate education? Our biggest challenge will be to keep it affordable so that we continue to enjoy a diverse student body. While hard to predict, there will always be a demand for an education that focuses on heart, mind, and soul in the context of meaningful, personal relationships between faculty, staff, and peers who live together in community. Pepperdine will continue to adapt with the technological revolution while remaining true to its Christian mission to prepare students for a life of purpose, service, and leadership.