12/13/2012 02:31 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2013

Living on Campus Builds Lifelong Skills

As critics debate the merits of college-level online courses, an important element is often overlooked: the value of the residential experience as an integral part of a college student's education. Applying what has been learned in the classroom to the living environment makes an extraordinary contribution to students' education in ways that cannot be replicated in an online experience.

Colleges -- and particularly small liberal arts institutions like Albion -- have long believed that they must focus on the whole person, which means offering an education that encompasses social as well as intellectual development. As online course work gains more prominence today, my concern is that education will be viewed simply as an academic commodity, and that the social dimension of learning will go unrecognized or be dismissed as unnecessary to the process. The truth is that, as vital as it is for our students to gain expertise in the virtual world, preparing them for leadership and citizenship in the real world requires the development of social skills and aptitudes primarily acquired by living and learning within a larger community.

When students are in residence on a college campus, their learning extends far beyond the classroom. They learn to appreciate the "other." They encounter new perspectives and beliefs through living with students representing different races, cultures, and lifestyles, and they develop a fuller understanding of diversity as a result. And they form deep friendships that will last a lifetime.

The residential experience enriches our students' education, making it far more grounded, more vibrant, and more meaningful.

Here are some of the more specific benefits of the residential experience:

Learning to live independently. For most of our students, college represents the first time they will live away from home. They learn to budget their time, manage their finances, and make their own decisions -- they begin to discover what it takes to become an independent adult. At Albion, we work with their parents too, and encourage them to allow their students to solve their own problems, to make mistakes and learn from them. These are essential steps in moving toward independence.

Learning to compromise. Sharing residential space also enhances students' ability to negotiate, compromise, and adapt. For instance, at Albion, at the beginning of each academic year we ask all students living in our residence halls to draw up a shared living agreement with their roommates, outlining the rights and responsibilities that will guide their time together. We find that working out such agreements, which often involves significant compromise and flexibility, creates a harmonious living environment based on mutual respect.

Developing leadership and communication skills. In campus life outside the classroom, students practice essential life skills. Whether they are leading a student organization, competing on an athletic team, or advocating for a political cause, students learn how to work effectively with their peers, are encouraged to work responsibly and ethically, and are challenged to set and achieve meaningful goals.

Creating a mindset for service. Campuses today are crucibles for developing tomorrow's engaged citizens. At Albion, we have students who volunteer on every level from local mentoring programs to global relief efforts. By their involvement in community service, students not only begin to identify social needs but to address them and bring about positive change. And through the influence of organizations such as Campus Compact, colleges and universities are instilling an ethic of caring that continues long after graduation.

Building healthy lifestyles. With the growing recognition of the importance of diet and exercise for long-term good health, colleges and universities have adopted programs that encourage healthy lifestyles. We at Albion recently built our programming for an entire year around the theme of wellness in all aspects of life. "A sound mind in a sound body" is a concept that stretches back to the ancient Greeks. Residential campuses take seriously their role in nurturing both body and mind -- this too is fundamental to educating the whole person and assisting students in reaching their full potential.

My major point is that the college experience should not be viewed merely through an academic lens. Intellectual achievement must be accompanied by development of those skills and attributes that enable our students to excel in the workplace and to contribute in meaningful ways to the larger society in which they live. These capabilities are honed through the social interactions that lie at the heart of the residential experience.