A survey of Harvard undergraduates reveals a House system that, despite the need for renovations, meets student expectations well and, for most, serves as a space to be with a “smaller community of friends.”
The House Renewal Survey, conducted from Oct. 30 to Nov. 18, 2008, was taken by on-campus sophomores, juniors, and seniors and had a 30.7 percent response rate, or almost 1,500 students.
Sophomores, with two more years of House life ahead, provided the most responses, with 545, followed by juniors at 499, and seniors at 452.
Students reported that the Houses supported their personal development and emotional well-being best by serving as a smaller community of friends, with 82 percent citing that as a House strength. Seventy-three percent said that social events in the Houses supported students’ development and emotional well-being, while 62 percent cited recreational activities.
When asked how well Houses met their expectations in various areas, students reported that the Houses met their expectations “well” or “very well” in most. Dining ranked highest (4.3) on a 5-point scale, while other responses showed the Houses as good places for quiet study (4.1), academic or intellectual functions (4.0), residential activities (4.1), and social or cultural activities (4.1).
The survey was conducted as part of a broader evaluation of House life that comprises the early steps in a long-term program of House renewal. The House Program Planning Committee (HPPC), charged last spring by Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith and chaired by Harvard College Dean Evelynn Hammonds, worked through much of 2008 to evaluate House life as it is currently experienced by students.
Additionally, the College conducted focus groups and interviews with House masters to gain a better understanding of the current strengths and weaknesses of House life. The five HPPC subcommittees concluded their work in December; their recommendations will be contained in a report on House renewal being drafted now. This report, in turn, will inform planners’ work regarding both the programmatic and physical aspects of House renewal.
With faculty interaction being a key part of the philosophy behind the House system, students’ responses showed that they were most interested in informal meals with faculty and their families in the Houses, with a ranking of 4.2 out of 5. They were least interested in class sections held in Houses as the main vehicle for faculty interaction. The survey showed that students valued the House tutor role for advising and community building, but were less aware of the specialty tutor program.
The survey also showed that student bedrooms were not just places for sleep. A large majority of students, 83 percent, said they most often studied in their bedrooms. The House libraries are being used by 59 percent of respondents, but not for taking out books. Almost all who use the library do so for individualized study, 94 percent, versus just 5 percent the House libraries for their books.
Though a strength of the House system is the creation of a community within each House, student respondents said that several functions might best be shared among House neighborhoods. Students suggested that House grilles (late-night eateries), theaters, and large multipurpose spaces are the best candidates for spaces that could be shared among neighboring Houses, while each House should have its own computer lab, library, and television or game room.
In this green age, energy use was an important consideration of students who answered the survey. Eighty-five percent said they’d like the Houses’ real-time energy use displayed publicly. There was no consensus on how to do this, however, as some said flat-panel screens, others cited posters in the dining hall, while still others suggested the usage be posted on the House Web page.