A residential college is a division of a university that places academic activity in a community setting of students and faculty, usually at a residence and with shared meals, the college having a degree of autonomy and a federated relationship with the overall university. The term residential college is also used to describe a variety of other patterns, ranging from a dormitory with some academic programming, to continuing education programs for adults lasting a few days. In some parts of the world it simply refers to any organized on-campus housing, an example being University of Malaya.
A prominent model for residential colleges is the colleges of the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, which are legally independent of the universities and are both residential and teaching institutions. This model was modified at Durham University, also in the UK, in the 19th century, which adapted the Oxbridge model to create non-teaching colleges that were legally part of the University. With the arrival of residential colleges in the United States the model diversified further. While the Durham adaptation of colleges being owned by the university rather than being independent corporations is generally followed, some universities (e.g. Yale University) follow Oxford and Cambridge in having teaching in the residential colleges while others (e.g. Harvard University) follow Durham in keeping teaching centralised. There is also a split between fully collegiate universities (e.g. the University of Notre Dame, where all freshmen are put in a residential college) and those (e.g. Northwestern University) where not all students are members of colleges. Another variant at some US universities is residential colleges that do not cover all years at the institute, e.g. Princeton University's system of paired four-year and two-year residential colleges, or Cornell University's West Campus House System, which only takes sophomores and above, with most upperclassmen either living off campus or in dorms unaffiliated with the residential colleges. Another point of variance is whether colleges are multi-disciplinary (as at Oxford and Cambridge) or focused on certain subject areas. An example of the latter is Fordham University, which has dedicated residential colleges (Integrated Learning Communities) for upperclassmen for various themes including global business and science, as well as separate freshman residential colleges, including one for students considering pre-med or science majors.
The primary difference between a residential college and a dormitory is often considered to be that while a student lives in a dormitory for a year, they are a member of a college for their entire student life, even when not living in the dormitories associated with that college: "Residential colleges are collegia in the original sense: societies, not buildings, and their members may reside anywhere". However, as can be seen above, this is not common to all variants of the residential college system. In addition, the members of a residential college are usually expected to eat their meals together, as a unified body. Standard dormitories tend to have residents who move between dorm complexes every year, and who eat in dining halls largely mixed with residents of other dormitories. However, residential colleges can be self-catering (e.g. Josephine Butler College, Durham), yet still clearly identified as colleges.
In the United States, as in many collegiate universities in the UK, the academic and residential functions of the residential college system are separated, with the colleges primarily as residential and social units. Although residential colleges in some universities offer some classes, these offerings supplement the offerings of the major academic which have separate facilities. Other US institutions not mentioned above that have residential colleges include Binghamton University, Murray State University (Murray, KY), Rice University, Washington University in St. Louis, University of Miami, Southern Methodist University, the University of Oklahoma, the University of California, San Diego, and the University of California, Santa Cruz. Many other institutions use the system as well. At the University of Virginia, students may apply to live in one of three residential colleges; acceptance rates vary widely. In 2001 Vanderbilt University decided to convert to a residential college system. Since that time, Vanderbilt has built and renovated residential facilities to suit this program, including The Commons for first-year students and several colleges for upper class students.
Collegiate structures in the British Isles follow a variety of models. In Oxford and Cambridge, a residential college combines both the residential and part of the academic aspects of the university in one location. Tutorials are generally given within the college, but lectures are organised by the wider university. In most universities in the UK with residential colleges – Durham (from the 19th century) along with Kent, Lancaster and York (from the 1960s) – formal teaching is carried out only in academic departments. Their colleges are primarily residential and the focus for social and sporting activities, as well as for student welfare. In these universities, the colleges are (with the exception of two early 20th century colleges at Durham) owned by their parent university. The University of Roehampton has four colleges (all founded in the 19th century) that joined to form the University. The teaching of the University takes place within the colleges, with academic departments being associated with a particular college. Roehampton colleges are, therefore, both residential and academic, but with the academic organisation on very different lines from Oxford and Cambridge. The University of London and the University of the Highlands and Islands are federal universities whose colleges are independent teaching institutes (some, in the case of London, being essentially world-leading universities in their own right) rather than residential colleges. The University of the Arts London is similarly organised, with six constituent teaching colleges, except that these are all owned by the central University rather than being joined in a federal structure. The University of Dublin (founded 1592) in Ireland has only one constituent college, Trinity College, which is thus effectively the whole University rather than a residential college. The University of St Andrews in Scotland contains three colleges, but these have neither a teaching nor residential role.
Many universities in Canada have emulated the collegiate systems of some British universities. York University and the University of Toronto have a federated college system including a number of "federated colleges" and "constituent colleges". Other Canadian universities with residential colleges include Trent University and its colleges, Paton College at Memorial University of Newfoundland, the University of Western Ontario, the University of Waterloo, the University of Manitoba, and the University of British Columbia. Three Canadian residential colleges are distinguished by being for graduate students rather than undergraduates — Green and St. John's colleges at UBC, and Massey College at the University of Toronto.
In Australia, colleges perform different functions at different universities. Colleges at the University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney provide academic, sporting and cultural programs in addition to those offered by their parent institution. However, they only serve a small fraction of the university population. By point of comparison, the colleges at the Australian National University and Monash University focus on the provision of accommodation.
In India, Pantnagar University is an example of a residential college.
Because of the many interpretations of the residential college concept, and its use at many universities and institutions, there are many experiences of how the concept plays out at various times and at various institutions. Some particularly illustrative experiences are summarised here.
With only three residential colleges for graduate students in Canada — Green and St. John's Colleges at the University of British Columbia, and Massey College at the University of Toronto — there is a sense that part of the work of these colleges is to explore a Canadian approach to the residential college model, and "to blend quality and prestige on the one hand, and enrichment of the campus on the other, while avoiding elitism or imitation".
In 1999 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took stock of its housing system, and studied a variety of residence models in "Reinventing residence life @ MIT". Particularly relevant is their report "A Creative Tension", about the Cambridge college system.
In Italy, the residential college model was adopted in 2003 by all of Milan universities, according to a joint program developed in collaboration with several private and public institutions, such as Microsoft and the Lombardy Region, at the Collegio di Milano.
In South Korea, the residential college system was first adopted by Wonju campus of Yonsei University in 2007 and later extended to Songdo campus in 2013. Due to the lack of housing available to the students, only the freshmen year participate in the residential college. Wonju campus operates 7 houses and the residential college campus in Songdo operates 12 houses.
Although the historical roots of collegiate organisation are to be found in Oxford and Cambridge universities, the corporate independence of Oxbridge colleges is not likely to be reproduced elsewhere. But there is a growing trend in US higher education to create decentralised residential colleges more along the lines of the colleges at Durham University than at Oxford, and this trend holds great promise for the improvement of student life.