Colleges Experiment with Gender-Blind Dorms

"Co-ed housing," where male and female students share the same floor, has long been part of the college dorm experience. But now some schools are letting men and women live together in the same dorm room.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

As the father of two daughters in college, I know co-ed housing is a part of student life. It has been for decades, starting immediately after I graduated. Okay, but what about the latest twist? Not just splitting up dorms into separate rooms for males and females, now some schools are putting kids in the same apartment or dorm room without any consideration of gender. NPR's Jack Zahora reports.

JACK ZAHORA: At night, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania looks like a campus right out of Harry Potter. Some of the student housing are small cottages with big, wooden doors. In one of them, a group of young men and women play cards. Most of them have lived together since last semester. Twenty-year-old Madeleine Baldandy(ph) shakes her head at all the old stereotypes.

Ms. MADELEINE BALDANDY (Student, Swarthmore College): They think that girls will have so many hair products, when in reality, you know, I have my shampoo and conditioner, whereas my roommate Alex has his curl-taming special hair stuff that he has to put on to make sure his hair looks perfect.

ZAHORA: Five students live together. The guys sleep in the living room while the women sleep in separate bedrooms. In 2001, Swarthmore offered gender-blind housing on a limited basis. Now it's extended even to single-room dorms. Bigger schools are following suit, including the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania. American University in Washington, D.C., will open a gender-blind dorm this fall. There's even a National Student Genderblind Campaign. David Norton co-founded the group. He started it after arriving at Guilford College in North Carolina.

Mr. DAVID NORTON (Co-founder, National Student Genderblind Campaign): I got there and my roommate didn't show up, and it just so happened that my best friend, who's a female, her roommate didn't show up, either. We thought to each other, you know, why not room together? We've been friends since middle school. I'm openly gay, so we didn't have a problem rooming with each other, regardless of, you know, our opposite sexes.

ZAHORA: But Guilford doesn't offer gender-blind housing, and Norton's proposal was rejected. He says many students are in the same situation at other schools. While he stopped short of calling their policies outright discriminatory, he says they're outdated.

Mr. NORTON: Traditional rooming policies fail to recognize the experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender students.

ZAHORA: In fact, many schools say it's the gay, lesbian and transgender community that's pushing for gender-blind housing. Norton says it's an issue of comfort. Just like some heterosexual students might not want to live with someone of the opposite sex, not all gay and lesbian students want to live with someone of the same sex. But at the more than 2,600 colleges and universities, only a handful offer gender-blind housing. For some students, mixing genders in the dorms doesn't fit with their values.

Ms. KIM COTTERMAN (Student, Marymount University): As a Catholic school, cohabitation is just not something that we believe in.

ZAHORA: At Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, a group of students who work for the school's housing department sit at a table in the cafeteria. Kim Cotterman(ph) studies politics. She says students aren't responsible enough to live with the opposite sex.

Ms. COTTERMAN: I think that when you have college students - and college students tend to drink a little more - I think you're leaving a compromising situation open for something to potentially go wrong.

ZAHORA: Nineteen-year-old Kellen Macbeth(ph) agrees. He says other schools can offer gender-blind housing, but it's not for him. He says it's a respect issue.

Mr. KELLEN MACBETH (Student, Marymount University): You know, you don't sleep in the same room with a girl because there is temptation there. And they are trying to instill sort of this respect for the opposite sex that can become diminished if you're, you know, always together, and you're sleeping together, and you're sharing the same bathroom and stuff like that.

ZAHORA: I talked to administrators at several schools. Most of them said the biggest story is that there is no story. When students of different genders started living together, there was not a mad rush to do so. And while parents feared their children were going to room with their boyfriends and girlfriends, the schools say students rarely wanted that kind of commitment. Jack Zahora, NPR News.

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