College is Inhumane

Humane design takes advantage of our strengths and mitigates our limitations. Residential colleges are inhumane because (1) we separate students from them from their families and communities, (2) we immerse them in an unhealthy age-segregated monoculture and then (3) we expect them to perform feats of time management we would not reasonably expect from adults.

Undergraduate culture is toxic. Students in dorms adopt poor habits of diet, exercise, and sleep; the predictable result is poor physical and mental health, and cognitive impairment (which doesn’t make classwork any easier). It’s normal for adolescents to manage their lives by trial and error, but it is not normal for them to be isolated from adults while they do it. Age-segregation is a bad idea.

Like other apes, people are hierarchical, which means that we live in a state of constant low-grade competition with our peers. Among adolescents in particular, social status is a preoccupation. If you are surrounded by your peers, the part of your brain that monitors your place in the hierarchy, and causes stress when it is threatened, is always on.

Moving into a new community is another source of stress. Among our early ancestors, most people would live their lives in one place, in a state of tension or war with neighboring groups. For brains that evolved in these conditions, living with a few hundred strangers is not healthy.

The other major cause of stress for college students is time management. By design, the college schedule is nonsensical. Students are supposed to work 3 hours per credit, so 16 credits is a 48-hour per week job. Classes take up a fraction of the normal work day, but the rest of the day is so fragmented that few students are able to use it effectively.

So most work happens in the evening and on weekends, but that time is also in demand for extracurricular activities, eating, exercise and sleep. Instead of working effectively during a reasonable work day, students work ineffectively all the time.

Most working adults focus on a small number of projects and maintain separation between their work and personal lives. Most students take 4-5 classes at a time, and maintain work/life boundaries that are blurry or nonexistent.

Some students thrive in this environment (which just shows how adaptable we are), but many perform far below their capability and waste their time at college. In addition, too many students fail out of college, not because of any academic issue, but because the college environment is not designed to accommodate human limitations.