Op-Ed

Ky. Voices: UK should go back to single-sex dorms

Students walked by a sign as a groundbreaking ceremony was held April 17 for UK's New Central Residence Hall, to be built in the field adjacent to Haggin Hall at University Drive and Huguelet Avenue.
Students walked by a sign as a groundbreaking ceremony was held April 17 for UK's New Central Residence Hall, to be built in the field adjacent to Haggin Hall at University Drive and Huguelet Avenue. Herald-Leader

The kindest word for many University of Kentucky dorms 45 years ago was spartan. And nearly all of these museums of minimal living still stand, preserved intact, free of any outwardly detectable infestation by modernity.

A recent news release by UK's Alumni Association reasonably states that only 600 of the university's 6,000 residence hall beds on campus "provide modern living and learning space that students expect."

Concerns about soaring educational costs are near universal, and budget constraints in Frankfort are real. These and other factors resulted in UK entering a private-public partnership for new student housing.

UK offers plausible arguments for encouraging students to live on campus: a 20 percent higher retention rate, and the ability to compete with other states in their efforts to recruit and retain the best and the brightest.

UK says that it wants "excellence in undergraduate education" and to "prepare our students for lives of leadership, meaning and purpose."

If UK's leadership is sincere about these goals, and I trust that it is, they will want to investigate the emerging issue of co-ed versus gender-specific housing for the new dorm partnership.

Former UK College of Law professor John Garvey said in The Wall Street Journal last year: "Why we're going back to single-sex dorms: student housing has become a hotbed of reckless drinking and hooking up."

There is an abundance of public health research, much of it from the Harvard School of Public Health's College Alcohol Study, that provides considerable support for Garvey's conclusion. Findings include:

■ As Garvey notes: "Alcohol-related deaths are the leading cause of death for young adults aged 17-24. Students who binge drink (about two in five) are 25 times more likely to do things like miss class, fall behind in school work, engage in unplanned sexual activity and get in trouble with the law."

■ A 2009 study published in the Journal of American College Health by Brian Willoughby and Jason Carroll noted that students in co-ed halls were nearly 2.5 times more likely than students in gender-specific housing (41.5 percent versus 17.6 percent) to report binge drinking on a weekly basis.

Co-ed housing is significantly associated with the use of pornography and marijuana and having multiple sexual partners and a sexually permissive attitude — even after the researchers had controlled for age, gender, religiosity and personality factors.

■ The same researchers found that nearly 63.2 percent in gender-specific housing indicated no sexual partners in the past year, but less than half (44.3 percent) of students in co-ed housing reported zero sexual partners in the past year. Furthermore, those in "co-ed housing (12.6 percent) were more than twice as likely as students in gender-specific housing (4.9 percent) to indicate that they had had three or more sexual partners in the last year."

■ Garvey further notes: "Rates of depression reach 20 percent for young women who have had two or more sexual partners in the last year, almost double the rate for women who have had none."

■ Harvard researcher Henry Wechsler and co-authors report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that underage binge drinking is associated with both Greek and co-ed student living. Overall annual costs associated with underage drinking are estimated at $58 billion, he wrote.

■ A review of the massive 14-year Harvard investigation of 50,000 students at 120 colleges reported considerable environmental secondhand effects from alcohol misuse: "disruption of sleep or study; property damage; verbal, physical and sexual violence."

An estimated 600,000 students per year were hit or assaulted by a student who had been drinking, and sexual assaults are typically alcohol-related.

Not all traditions should be discarded. The public health case for gender-specific student housing is scientifically sound. A good housing plan at UK could become better.

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