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Hill College House is one of two residences to house a dining hall within the building itself, an attribute that University administrators say helps foster community. [Tiasha Balland/The Daily Pennsylvanian]

More than three years ago, the University attempted to do something different. Administrators wanted to revamp dormitory life at Penn, and they created a plan -- a college house system to fuse residential life and academic life, creating more distinctive, family-like communities.

And now, at a time when all Penn students have experienced the system during their entire undergraduate experiences, a mere 38 percent of those surveyed feel there is actually a difference between a college house and a traditional dormitory, according to a Daily Pennsylvanian survey of 297 randomly selected undergraduates.

While college houses had existed at the University since the 1970s, the new college house plan merged all 12 undergraduate dormitories into college houses in 1998.

In part, the University was trying to compete with similar systems implemented in other Ivies, such as Harvard and Yale universities.

But with Penn's unique urban setting, harboring a successful college house system has proved to be more than a challenge.

The resources and facilities available at Harvard and Yale make their college houses vastly different from those at Penn. Their houses are virtually identical architecturally, so students don't feel compelled to move from house to house for want of varying facilities. All houses contain their own dining halls, facilitating community bonding through the dining experience.

College senior Louisa Chen said that to her, the terms college house and dormitory are "synonymous." And most of her peers agree. According to the DP survey, roughly 62 percent of students said there was no difference between a community-based college house and a dormitory to sleep and study.

Chen has opted to live in college houses throughout her four years -- and currently resides in Harnwell College House -- more for convenience, she says, than any of the principles of the college house system.

"I think it's a natural transition from a freshman dorm to a high rise," she said. "It wasn't because it was a college house, it was because it was on campus."

In fact, according to the DP survey, the most common reason for students to choose to live in a college house is the type of room the dormitory offers -- not the community atmosphere for which administrators were striving. In fact, only 17 percent of students surveyed identified the house community as a reason to live in a college house.

The task of creating a sense of community within the college houses has seen limited success. While some houses, such as DuBois and Stouffer, have successfully developed close bonds, others, such as the three high rises, have a long way to go.

Not only do most college houses have trouble creating community, they struggle to maintain whatever community they've got. According to the DP survey, less than half of the students surveyed lived in a college house for more than one year. Of all the students surveyed who currently live on campus, 68 percent said that they wanted to move off campus in the future.

The varied architecture of the dormitories on campus have presented challenges to community building, and administrators have noted that it's difficult to foster community in a high rise with 800 residents.

"Small is good, big is challenging," said English professor Al Filreis, one of the founders of Penn's college house system. He added that living in one of the three high rises that comprise the area formerly known as Superblock is "like living in a high rise in Queens."

The "next hurdle is facilities," Filreis added. "Our current facilities are not designed for real college house style interaction, especially not the high rises."

"Our buildings need to be renovated, and we need more of them," added David Brownlee, director of College Houses and Academic Services.

Another issue plaguing the college house system is dining. While dining was originally considered a cornerstone of the college house system -- a way for residents to foster a sense of community identity -- recent dissatisfaction with Penn's dining program has made this aspect of the college house system struggling at best.

Last year, undergraduates were enraged when Dining Services canceled the smallest meal plan available to upperclassmen and required all incoming freshmen to purchase a meal plan.

With roughly 140 retail operations around campus and dining's options of meals-to-go, many students say they are deciding to steer clear of Penn's three dining halls. Roughly 57 percent of the students surveyed by the DP have a meal plan. And of those with a plan, the majority only use it 10 times a week or less.

While dining may not be the shining star of the college house system, administrators say they are proud of the academic and social services that have been implemented in the college houses since the fall of 1998.

Students can now get computing help without leaving their dormitories and academic tutors are only a few rooms away.

And the DP found that most students take advantage of the services their college houses have to offer. In fact, roughly 72 percent of those surveyed participate in academic or social activities within their house at least once a month.

But that leaves a whopping 28 percent of students that had never participated in any form of academic or social programming sponsored by a college house.

According to Brownlee, the most successful component of the college house system is its ability to foster interaction among intelligent people in an unstructured setting.

"The most important aspect of the college house is the provision of serendipitous possibilities for students and faculty and staff to invent new programs and to further their established interests," he said.

And while the college houses are here to facilitate interaction, sometimes they don't. According to the DP survey, only about 40 percent of students who live in college houses felt comfortable saying they knew their faculty master. But, according to Brownlee, that's OK.

"This is very much a system based on the notion that Penn students are mature enough to know what they want," Brownlee said. "Students who want to live more privately can do that too... We don't say every Thursday morning we'll all do X. Penn students want choice."

Daily Pennsylvanian Reporters Shelly Layser, Stephanie Ramos, Farouk Samad, Ivan Genadiev, Rachel Velcoff, Karen Rutzick, Ankita Deshpande, Ashley Parker, Blair Kaminsky, Catherine Wise, Caroline Vendel, and Ronna Waldman contributed to the survey mentioned in this story.

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