05/12/2014 07:04 am ET Updated Jul 12, 2014

The Battle Over College Residential Life

It's often said that students go to college to learn. Yet the statement misses an important point in its simplicity. Students also go to college to live.

Politically, there are raging debates that continue in social media and often spill out into print about the development and direction of the academic program and the ideologies and faddishness that sometimes guide it. These debates over ideology, purpose, and outcomes will always take place. But what we miss sometimes is that much of the perception of college life arises from the thousand teachable moments that exist outside the college classroom. It's the place where students live.

It's also where students - and the colleges that accept them - are most likely to earn a black eye in the community.

For the college-bound, colleges and universities have a responsibility to think long and hard about what kind of community they create.

This debate about the out-of-classroom experience boiled over this week when the Boston Globe published a report that detailed the poor and overcrowded living conditions endured by off-campus students enrolled at Boston's colleges and universities. Boston's new mayor, Marty Walsh, promised to enforce the fines levied on landlords and increase the number of inspectors. Mayor Walsh also demanded that colleges in Boston provide the addresses of undergraduate students living off campus, to protect the safety of tens of thousands of college and university students living in the city.

Walsh's actions raise important issues for American higher education.

What responsibility does American higher education have to its students when promising them a residential learning experience? Is what they are promising - in fact and by their actions - carried out?

If many of Boston's colleges and universities don't guarantee housing for four years, what plans do they have to be certain that the housing situation mirrors the promises they made to provide a comprehensive residential learning experience?

There is a bottom line to these questions. The fact is that most colleges and universities - especially large, research-oriented institutions in dense urban environments - have made a conscious decision not to provide a four-year, on-campus experience.

There are many justifiable reasons for doing so. To expand the residential environment fully will require more land, substantially increased debt, and renewed pressures on their tax exempt status now under more or less constant attack in cash-strapped municipalities. New construction could easily exceed $100,000 per bed when "all in" costs of land, labor and neighborhood concessions are added into the full accounting of costs.

The fact is that even the most well-endowed colleges and universities have a complex list of priorities that may not include upper division housing in terms of where they make capital outlays or take on new debt. Academic programs - especially in the sciences and engineering - are capital intensive and expensive to maintain and grow.

Additionally, their students have had a taste of freedom and independence in an unregulated environment. Students may complain about living conditions in the "adult entertainment zones" that surround America's universities but most likely want the freedom and flexibility that comes with living there.

That having been said colleges and universities can no longer turn a blind eye to how their housing impacts their sense of campus community or affects that broader community that surrounds them. It's simplistic to "wink" and argue that colleges and universities are giving students what they want by allowing these students to experience life in great cities like Boston, Washington, Chicago, and New York.

Among a number of changes, two must occur immediately.

First, colleges and universities must review their housing strategy in light of their strategic plan and against what they present to their students (and their families) as the "value added" from the residential learning experience that they offer. "Truth in advertising" must include a clear policy on what off campus housing is acceptable and the terms to which landlords and students must agree as part of their "social contract" with their university.

Second, America's colleges and universities should look to find different ways to finance housing that does not require use of bond capacity or mandate too narrowly a direct feed of students who should have choices among clean, livable and affordable spaces.

There is a huge market and available capital to build upper division, graduate and professional private housing in many cities with large university-aged student populations. The newly constructed housing must be market-driven so that, should the use change, the space can be repurposed to general housing stock. It's not rocket science to imagine how Boston and other cities could work with colleges and rating agencies to get the job done.

It will also require a looser interpretation of the definition of a contingent obligation placed on a college or university by analysts like Moody's who rate related debt capacity. And most important it will mean that colleges and universities get intentional about relating their housing practices to their residential life policies.

Mayor Walsh is right to cast the question as a health and safety issue. These changes may also foster greater persistence and higher graduation rates. For colleges and universities, it starts with thinking differently about how they do business, cooperate in their regions, and live up to the standards they profess.